ANKARA: US troops will withdraw from northeast Syria ahead of an imminent Turkish military offensive against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its main component, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the White House said.
The announcement followed a phone call between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The US, which will not support or be involved in the operation, said it is giving Ankara responsibility for thousands of Daesh captives who are currently held in SDF facilities.
In its fight against Daesh, Washington has long backed the SDF, which Ankara considers a terrorist group.
The White House announcement angered the SDF, which said “American forces did not fulfill their commitments,” and it will cause a “great negative” impact on the war against Daesh.
American soldiers began withdrawing from observation posts along the Turkish-Syrian border, at Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ain early on Monday.
Ankara is determined to establish a 300-mile-long, 18-mile-deep “safe zone” in northeast Syria, including the towns of Kobani and Qamishli, after the withdrawal of US forces to secure Turkey’s southern border and enable up to 2 million Syrian refugees to settle in the zone.
Turkish and US defense chiefs have discussed details of the zone in recent days, but the timing and scope of the operation are still unclear.
Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said: “Turkey will correct the demographics changed by the Syrian-Kurdish YPG in the region.”
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If Ankara launches a military operation against Syrian Kurds, experts say it will pave the way for a Russian-brokered deal between Damascus, Turkey and the Kurds.
“The YPG is left with only two scenarios: Either ally with the (Syrian) regime to face Turkey and pull out from the southern flanks of areas under its control in order to defend the northern parts, or try to negotiate a new deal with the US in which the YPG retreats from limited border areas and maintains its presence in the south,” Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Arab News.
She said the latter option might be more difficult given the broken trust in US promises and the significance of the border towns to the YPG.
Trump and Erdogan are expected to meet in Washington in the first half of November. Meanwhile, US Sen. Lindsey Graham said: “I will do everything I can to sanction the Turkish military and economy if they set one foot in Syria.”
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund of the US, said Turkey’s long-term goal is to completely eradicate the YPG from northern Syria.
“But as this is close to impossible due to the YPG’s relations with the US, Russia and potentially the Syrian regime, Turkey is adopting a strategy through which it will change the facts on the ground in a limited way and continue negotiating with other actors until it’s ready to further change the facts on the ground, after which it will continue to negotiate from that point,” he told Arab News.
Unluhisarcikli said the last thing Turkey or the US want is their troops clashing in Syria. He added that while the US would certainly object to a massive Turkish incursion, or one that targets major Kurdish towns such as Kobani, it has begrudgingly chosen to turn a blind eye.
“There are wide swathes of territory in northern Syria without a significant Kurdish population, and Turkey will probably limit its incursions to those territories for the time being,” he said.