Donald Trump has ordered all remaining US forces in north-east Syria to withdraw in the face of a growing Turkish military assault on the region, paving the way for an escalation of fighting as the area dissolves into chaos.
Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, said the roughly 1,000 American troops stationed in northern Syria would be pulled out because the Turkish offensive would be broader than expected.
Speaking to CBS News, he said that Washington was “preparing to evacuate” them “as safely and quickly as possible”.
The decision, which came after the Pentagon claimed that a US base came under Turkish fire on Friday, followed reports of a mass breakout from a Syrian camp housing women and children believed to be linked to Isis. The escapes will exacerbate international fears that the offensive launched by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan will foment a resurgence of the Sunni jihadi group as Kurdish fighters guarding them divert resources to fending off a Turkish assault.
It also followed accusations that Syrian militias fighting alongside the Turkish armed forces conducted a string of roadside executions at the weekend, including the killing of a female Kurdish politician, fuelling concerns about human rights abuses.
Meanwhile, international anger at Ankara mounted at the weekend, as France and Germany halted arms sales to their Nato ally.
Mr Trump, who has long sought to end US involvement in Syria, faced a backlash when he announced last week that a small number of American troops in the vicinity of a looming Turkish incursion would be redeployed. The move prompted accusations that he had betrayed Kurdish forces who spearheaded the campaign against Isis by leaving them vulnerable to a Turkish assault.
Sunday’s withdrawal announcement will see him all but fulfil a campaign trail pledge to extricate the US from “endless wars” in the Middle East, but is likely to amplify bipartisan criticism of the US president in Washington.
The stretch of north-east Syria that is the focus of the Turkish campaign has descended into disarray since Mr Trump in effect gave the green light for the assault, with a mounting death toll, mass civilian displacement and concerns about the Syrian extremist groups that Ankara has deployed as proxies in the fight.
Hundreds of people fled a camp housing almost 1,000 family members of Isis fighters on Sunday, according to human rights monitors.
Save the Children said foreign women and children allegedly connected to the Islamist group could now be “lost in the chaos”.
Meanwhile, six people were executed in roadside killings by Turkish-backed forces on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based war monitor, reported, adding that 38 civilians had been killed since the military operation started.
The dead included Hevrin Khalaf, the female secretary-general of the Syria Future Party. Pro-government Turkish media outlets labelled her a senior terrorist operative.
The alleged murders were the first signs of ethno-sectarian bloodletting springing from clashes between rogue elements of Ankara-aligned Arab militias and fighters from the Kurdish-dominated forces, who the West armed and trained to fight Isis jihadis but who Turkey views as terrorists.
Turkey has yet to respond to the claims. But Mustafa Yeneroglu, a rare voice of dissent within Mr Erdogan’s ruling party, criticised Ms Khalaf’s killing of as “horrendous”. “The groups that carried out this atrocity are barbarians” he said.
Asked about the allegations, Mr Esper said that Washington — which has threatened Turkey with sanctions over the offensive without specifying its red lines — was “hearing the same reports”. He said they would amount to “war crimes”, if true.
The incursion has seen almost the entire length of the border area between the two countries strafed with bombs and shelling since Wednesday. The ground offensive has focused on the towns of Ras al-Ayn, which Mr Erdogan said on Sunday that Turkey and its rebel allies had seized, and Tal Abyad, which he said was besieged.
Around 130,000 people have fled, according to the UN. Meanwhile, Turkish towns have come under fire from inside Syria, killing 18 civilians.
International condemnation of Turkey increased this weekend. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that Turkey must not become “a kind of occupying power” in northern Syria.
EU foreign ministers and leaders are expected to discuss a possible bloc-wide arms embargo during talks this week. But such a decision would require unanimity among the 28 member states, which have struggled to agree a common position given concerns about jeopardising Ankara’s co-operation on curbing migration and combating terrorism.
Hungary’s foreign minister Peter Szijjarto last week acknowledged that Budapest had sought to block an EU statement condemning Turkey’s military campaign.
Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran, Tobias Buck in Berlin and Valerie Hopkins in Budapest