The White House has given the green light to a Turkish offensive into northern Syria, moving US forces out of the area in an abrupt foreign policy change that will in effect abandon Washington’s longtime military partners, the Kurds.
Kurdish forces have spearheaded the campaign against Islamic State in the region, but the policy swerve, after a phone conversation between Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sunday, means Turkey would take custody of captured Isis fighters, the White House said.
It has also raised fears of fresh fighting between Turkey and Kurdish forces in Syria’s complex war now the US no longer acts as a buffer between the two sides.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Monday morning that their US partners had already begun withdrawing troops from areas along Turkey’s border. Footage aired on Kurdish news agency Hawar purportedly showed US armoured vehicles evacuating key positions near the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad in the border region. Erdogan himself also confirmed the development in remarks to reporters on Monday morning in Ankara.
The SDF spokesman, Mustafa Bali, accused the US of leaving the area to “turn into a war zone”, adding that the SDF would “defend north-east Syria at all costs”.
A statement from the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said that Ankara had “supported the territorial integrity of Syria since the beginning of the crisis and will continue to do so … [We are] determined to ensure survivability and security of Turkey by clearing the region from terrorists. We will contribute to bringing safety, peace and stability to Syria.”
The decision represents the latest in a series of erratic moves by Trump, who is fighting impeachment at home, apparently taken without consultation with, or knowledge of, US diplomats dealing with Syria, or the UK and France, the US’s main international partners in the country.
Brett McGurk, a former US special envoy for the fight against Isis, said: “The White House statement tonight on Syria after Trump spoke with Erdoğan demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of anything happening on the ground.
McGurk pointed out that the US is not holding any Isis detainees. They are being held by the SDF “which Trump just served up to Turkey”.
“Turkey has neither the intent, desire, nor capacity to manage 60,000 detainees, which State and [Pentagon inspectors general] warn is the nucleus for a resurgent Isis. Believing otherwise is a reckless gamble with our national security,” McGurk warned on Twitter.
The US and Turkey came to an agreement in August to create a “safe zone” in northern Syria, by which the US-backed Kurdish-led SDF would pull back from the border.
The safe zone deal was due to forestall a Turkish military offensive which has been threatened since Trump announced last December the 2,000 US special forces stationed in Syria would leave. Ankara sees the SDF as indistinguishable from Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey and views it as a serious security threat.
In the White House statement issued just before 11 pm on Sunday, however, that agreement was not mentioned.
“Today, President Donald J Trump spoke with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey by telephone,” it said. “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the Isis territorial ‘caliphate’, will no longer be in the immediate area.”
The statement suggested that in return for US acquiescence in a Turkish offensive, Erdoğan had assured Trump that Turkey would take over the detention of Isis militants captured by the SDF, on the battlefield.
The custody of Europeans and other foreign fighters has long been one of Trump’s preoccupations, and he has lambasted European governments for not taking responsibility for their own nationals in Isis’ ranks.
“The US government has pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured Isis fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused,” the White House statement continued.
“The US will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer. Turkey will now be responsible for all Isis fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial caliphate by the United States.”
Syria experts have warned that the US abandonment of the SDF would lead to another, new front in the eight-year Syrian conflict, and could push the Kurds into seeking an arrangement with the Assad regime in Damascus. The Kurdish leadership has long been in talks with Damascus to ensure a level of Kurdish autonomy in north eastern Syria in the event of a US pullout.
Two weeks ago, at the UN general assembly, the US special envoy for the global coalition to defeat Isis, James Jeffrey, stressed that the US had an agreement with Turkey on a safe zone, in recognition of Ankara’s security concerns, that obviated the need for an Turkish incursion.
“We listen to the Turks’ concerns. We try to respond to them when we can,” Jeffrey said. “And we have made it clear to Turkey at every level that any unilateral operation is not going to lead to an improvement in anyone’s security – not Turkey’s, not the people in the north-east, not the people around the world who feel threatened by Daesh [Isis], which is the basic purpose for our US military being in the north-east in the first place.”
Ankara says the planned safe zone could allow up to two million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey to return, although international observers and the SDF say such a move would amount to demographic engineering. Turkish presidency spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said on Monday that Turkey has “no interest in occupation or changing demographics”.
Another outcome of the Trump-Erdoğan call is that the Turkish leader is expected to visit the White House next month.