In a remarkable announcement late Sunday night, the White House said that United States forces in northern Syria would move aside in advance of a planned Turkish military offensive.
The move marks a major shift in US foreign policy and effectively gives Turkey the green light to attack US-backed Kurdish forces. The group, long considered as among Washington’s most reliable partners in Syria, has played a key strategic role in the campaign against ISIS in the region.
Following a phone call between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the White House said that Turkey would soon begin a military offensive and US forces would not be involved in the operation.
“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” a statement said. “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 White House added Turkey would now be responsible for all captured ISIS fighters who are currently being held by US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
As of last month, the US said about 1,000 US troops were operating in northeastern Syria. Sunday’s statement did not specify if this constituted a full withdrawal of personnel from the country.
Erdogan confirmed Monday that US troops had begun withdrawing from northeast Syria. He announced Saturday that Turkey had “completed our preparations and action plan” and was ready to launch a “ground and air operation” east of the Euphrates river, with the goal of establishing “peace” by clearing the region of “terrorists.”
Turkey’s operation is aimed at clearing the US-backed Kurdish militia – the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – away from Turkey’s border.
Ankara regards the YPG as a terrorist group affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought the Turkish state for more than three decades. But the US backs the YPG and credits the Kurds for helping defeat ISIS in Syria.
Turkey has been working with the US to establish “safe zones” that run along the Turkey-Syria border, but Anadolu reports that while Turkey welcomes the joint patrols, it has also said the US is not doing enough to set up the safe zone properly.
In a phone call with Trump, Erdogan expressed frustration over the US military’s failure to implement the agreement between the two nations, according to a readout of the call released by the Turkish Presidency. The two leaders agreed to meet in Washington next month on Trump’s invitation.