Lead Ward Live Jake Tapper_00012119.jpg
Trump's Syria decision creates tense dynamic between U.S. Special Ops and Kurds
02:31 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned “ISIS will resurge” if the US does not keep the pressure on, days after the White House announced US forces in northern Syria would pull back in advance of a planned Turkish military offensive.

“In this case, if we don’t keep the pressure on, then ISIS will resurge. It’s absolutely a given that they will come back,” Mattis told NBC in a clip released Saturday by the news organization ahead of Sunday’s “Meet the Press.” Mattis resigned in December after President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw troops from Syria became public. The retired four-star general was privately adamant in urging Trump against the pullback.

“ISIS is not defeated,” Mattis told NBC. “We have got to keep the pressure on ISIS so they don’t recover.”

The move to pull back troops from the area ahead of the Turkish military offensive drew widespread criticism, including from top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It was a major shift in US foreign policy and some lawmakers and the Syrian Democratic Forces have argued it effectively gave Turkey the green light to attack US-backed Kurdish forces, though Trump administration officials have argued Turkey would have invaded regardless of the presence of US troops.

Kurdish-led SDF, which has long been considered one of America’s most reliable partners in Syria, has played a key strategic role in the campaign against ISIS in the region.

In December, Mattis was “livid” after reading reports about US local allies in Syria being targeted by Turkey following the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, two defense officials told CNN at the time. The officials said what set him off was a report that the Turkish Minister of Defense threatened to kill the US-backed Kurdish allies and put them “in ditches” once the US pulled out.

Mattis told NBC in the clip released Saturday that the current situation is one of “disarray.” He said, “Obviously, the Kurds are adapting to the Turkish attacks. And we’ll have to see if they’re able to maintain the fight against ISIS. It’s going to have an impact. The question is, how much?”

Mattis hypothesized that even if the US declares war over and troops are pulled out, ISIS could rebuild. “We may want a war over, we may even declare it over. You can pull your troops out, as President Obama learned the hard way, out of Iraq, but the enemy gets a vote, we say in the military,” he said.

‘You are leaving us to be slaughtered’

The commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces told a senior US diplomat, “You are leaving us to be slaughtered,” and demanded to know whether the US was going to do anything to protect Syrian Kurds as Turkey continues its military operation targeting America’s Kurdish allies in Syria.

“You have given up on us. You are leaving us to be slaughtered,” Gen. Mazloum Kobani Abdi told the Deputy Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, William Roebuck, in a meeting Thursday, according to an internal US government readout that has been obtained exclusively by CNN.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Friday the US is not abandoning its Kurdish allies, but made it clear the US military would not intervene in the fight.

“We remain in close coordination with the Syrian Democratic Forces who helped us destroy the physical caliphate of ISIS, but I will not place American service members in the middle of a longstanding conflict between the Turks and the Kurds, this is not why we are in Syria,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon.

CNN’s Ryan Browne and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.