US withdraws troops from northeast Syria in preparation for Turkish attack

UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY) — The United States began withdrawing some of its troops from northeastern Syria on Monday, paving the way for a Turkish attack on Kurdish-led US-allied forces, a move President Donald Trump has described as an end to “endless wars”. 

The move marks a major policy shift and Ankara recognizes responsibility for thousands of ISIS prisoners. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they represented a “back stab”. The troops are Washington’s strongest partner in fighting the militant group in Syria.

Troops accused the United States of abandoning an ally, warning that the Turkish attack would have a “significant negative impact” on the war on ISIS.

But Trump said in a number of tweets on Twitter that continuing to support Kurdish-led forces is too costly. “It’s time we got out of those ridiculous and endless wars,” he said.

“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to settle the situation,” he said.

In a sign of mounting humanitarian concerns, a UN official commented on the move that civilians should be protected in any Turkish operation in northeastern Syria, adding the world body hoped to prevent abuses or displacement.

“We hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” Panos Momsis, the regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syrian crisis, told reporters in Geneva.

A US official said US forces had withdrawn from two border observation posts at Tall Abyad and Ras al-Ain and told the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that the United States would not defend troops in the face of an imminent Turkish attack. The rest of US forces elsewhere in Syria will remain in place.

A US official told Reuters on Monday that the withdrawal of US troops in Syria would initially be limited to a piece of land near the Turkish border where Ankara and Washington had agreed to work together to establish a special security zone there.

The official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, did not say whether troops would leave Syria or move elsewhere in the country of about 1,000 US troops.

Another US official said any unilateral Turkish military attack in Syria was a “bad idea” and that the United States “will not help in this regard in any way but will not resist it.”

The White House said after a telephone conversation between Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday that US forces would not support the operation.

He added, “US forces will not support or participate in the operation, and will not remain in the region after defeating the ‘succession’ of ISIS.”

– “War zone” –

Erdogan said US forces were withdrawing from parts of northeastern Syria after a telephone conversation with Trump. He said he planned to visit Washington to meet Trump in the first half of November, where they would discuss plans for a “safe zone”.

Turkey has long advocated the establishment of a “safe” border area 32 km under Ankara’s control and the expulsion of the Syrian Kurdish YPG, the dominant force in the SDF, which Turkey views as a terrorist organization and a threat to its national security.

The United States has helped the YPG defeat Islamic State fighters in Syria and is seeking a joint “security mechanism” with Turkey on the border to meet Ankara’s security needs so as not to threaten the SDF.

The SDF accused Washington on Monday of betraying an ally.

“US forces have not fulfilled their obligations and have withdrawn their forces from border areas with Turkey, and Turkey is now preparing for an invasion of northern and eastern Syria,” it said in a statement.

Mustafa Bali, an official with the Syrian Democratic Forces, said US forces had left the area into a war zone.

“The (US) statement issued today was surprising and we can say that it stabbed the back of the SDF,” Kino Jibril, a spokesman for the troops, said in an interview with al-Hadath television.

A Turkish official later said the US withdrawal could take a week and that Turkey would likely wait until the withdrawal was completed before any attack was launched.

– Prisoners of the Islamic State –

The White House statement handed Turkey apparently responsibility for the captured Islamic State fighters currently held in facilities of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) south of the safe area initially proposed by Ankara.

“Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the region who have been captured over the past two years.”

The statement referred to Washington’s European allies, saying many captured fighters belonged to those countries, which reject US calls for their return.

“The United States will not detain them for years that could be lengthy and costly to the US taxpayer,” the White House said.

In the first Turkish comment on the statement, Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said that Turkey’s “safe zone” plan came within the framework of Syrian territorial integrity.

“The safe area has two goals: securing our borders by expelling terrorist elements and achieving a safe return of refugees,” Kalin wrote on Twitter.

But the Kremlin, the strongest foreign ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said Syrian territorial integrity should be preserved, adding that Moscow would continue to seek the withdrawal of all foreign forces “illegally” in Syria.

Turkey says it wants to settle up to 2 million Syrian refugees in the region. It currently hosts 3.6 million Syrians since the war began more than eight years ago.

The Turkish presidency said that Erdogan, during a telephone conversation with Trump, expressed disappointment at the failure of US military and security officials to implement the agreement between the two countries to establish a safe area.

Turkey and the United States agreed in August to set up an area in northeastern Syria on the border with Turkey.

Turkey says the United States has been slow to establish the region and Ankara has repeatedly threatened a unilateral attack in northeastern Syria.


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