Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper accused Turkey on Thursday of putting the United States and its allies in the Middle East and Europe in a “terrible situation” with its agreement to police northern Syria with Moscow.
His remarks were made at a NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels, amid efforts by the Pentagon to pick up the tattered remnants of the American military’s efforts to defeat the Islamic State.
Mr. Esper called on Ankara to start acting like an ally and not a foe of the United States and NATO. But he was besieged by questions about President Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw American troops and declare victory against the Islamic State in Syria.
During his first face-to-face meeting with his Turkish and European counterparts since Mr. Trump’s transfer of authority in Syria to Turkey and Russia, Mr. Esper was struggling to put rhyme and reason to his boss’s volte-face.
“Nobody has yet offered a better alternative to what the United States did,” Mr. Esper told an audience at the German Marshall Fund, as he cited constant criticism of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria.
That decision effectively opened the door for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to send his troops into Syria and launch attacks against the Kurds who had fought alongside American troops there to battle the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Mr. Trump’s decision “to withdraw less than 50 soldiers from the zone of attack was made after it was made very clear to us that President Erdogan made the decision to come across the border,” Mr. Esper said.
He said that the United States could “not jeopardize the lives” of American special operations troops in Syria and that the United States could not “start a fight with a NATO ally.”
But that rationalization, critics say, doesn’t protect the Kurdish fighters in Syria from Ankara, especially since on Wednesday Mr. Trump followed his withdrawal of American troops by lifting sanctions against Turkey.
That means the NATO defense ministers’ meeting this week, immediately following the whipsaw events of the past two weeks, was dominated on its first day by questions about what, if anything, to do about Turkey, an alliance member that increasingly has been going its own way.
“We see them spinning closer to Russia’s orbit than in the Western orbit and I think that is unfortunate,” Mr. Esper said.
Beyond Syria, Ankara has ignored American demands to reject delivery of Russian S-400 missile defense systems, which the Pentagon says could allow Moscow to spy on American F-35 technology. In retaliation, the United States has begun to remove Turkey from a joint F-35 jet production program.
Mr. Esper scheduled a meeting with Defense Minister Hulusi Akar of Turkey for Thursday night. But it was unclear what the Pentagon, in the absence of any backing from Mr. Trump, could do to prod Ankara.
Since the beginning of his trip, with stops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Esper has been hounded by the repercussions of Mr. Trump’s Syria pullout. Mr. Esper arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday and was greeted by a tweet from his boss claiming that a cease-fire in Syria was “holding up very nicely,” and attributing that view to Mr. Esper. But Mr. Trump called Mr. Esper “Mark Esperanto” in the tweet — a misspelling that eludes repeated efforts to duplicate it via autocorrect on smartphones.
Mr. Esper arrived in Saudi Arabia as Russian troops were taking over military bases abandoned by American troops in Syria. And in Iraq, he was faced with public posturing from Iraqi officials who loudly insisted that American troops relocating to Iraq from Syria could not stay long in the country.
Hanging over all this was the question of how to secure 2,000 Islamic State prisoners in Syria, who were being held by the Kurds.
“It is extremely important to make sure that captured ISIS fighters are not set free, so those who are present on the ground have a responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen,” NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, told reporters on Thursday. Standing beside Mr. Esper a few hours later, he expressed concern “about jeopardizing the progress we have made in the fight against” the Islamic State.
At NATO, the big hurdle that officials were grappling with was how to handle Turkey. (As if to highlight his refusal to bend to NATO’s collective will, Mr. Erdogan said on Thursday that if the Kurdish militants appeared in the so-called safe zone in Syria after an agreed-upon withdrawal period, Turkey would use its right to “crush them.”)
As if to remind themselves why the alliance needs to exercise patience with Turkey, officials were passing around a 1979 brief from Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of Britain, in which she outlined dire consequences if NATO pushed Turkey away.
“If Turkey abandoned her Western orientation, a number of strongly adverse military consequences would follow for the West,” the brief said. “NATO would lose control exercised by Turkey over the Bosporus and Dardanelles choke points which give the Soviet Black Sea fleet its only point of exit to the Mediterranean.”
The brief added that “the U.S.A. would be denied Turkish sites for important intelligence and air defense surveillance facilities and the use of Turkish military airfields.”
It concluded that “the military position would be the more serious if the Soviet Union were herself able to exploit Turkish airspace or, worse, given use of Turkey’s airfields. In that event, the Eastern Mediterranean might become untenable by NATO in times of tension or war.”