The late Sunday announcement that the United States would not intervene in a long-threatened Turkish offensive signaled an abrupt end to a months-long American effort to broker peace between two important allies. It came after a call between President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A U.S. official confirmed to The Washington Post that troops had left observation posts in the border villages of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn at 6:30 a.m. local time.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said the Turkish leader would “soon be moving forward” with dispatching troops to battle Kurdish forces who Ankara sees as terrorists but whom have been a chief U.S. partner against the Islamic State.
“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,” Grisham said in a statement. ISIS is another name for the Islamic State, the militant group whose rise drew the U.S. military into Syria.
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The Syrian Democratic Forces, a major Kurdish group that has fought closely with the U.S. military, said the U.S. troops had already begun pulling out and criticized them for not fulfilling their obligations.
“The United States forces have not fulfilled their obligations and withdrew their forces from the border area with Turkey,” the statement said. “This Turkish military operation in north and east Syria will have a big negative impact on our war against Daesh and will destroy all stability that was reached in the last few years.” The statement used the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
It added that the group reserved the right to defend itself against Turkish aggression.
Erdogan, who has portrayed a Turkish incursion as necessary to protect his country’s borders, has spoken in recent weeks of resettling millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey in a “safe zone” in northern Syria, a plan that has been criticized by refugee advocates as well as local Syrian Kurds who could be displaced by such a proposal.
On Saturday, Erdogan said the invasion could begin “as soon as today or maybe tomorrow.” The operation — which he called “fountains of peace” — would be conducted by air and land, he said.
U.S. officials depicted the impending offensive, and the U.S. troop withdrawal, as a dramatic turn after their prolonged attempt to hammer out an arrangement that would allay the Turks’ concerns about Syrian Kurdish forces close to their border, while also averting a battle they fear will be bloody for Kurdish fighters who the Pentagon see as a stalwart ally.
Military officials point out that Kurdish assistance is still required to avoid a return of the Islamic State in Syria and to guard facilities where Islamic State militants and their families are being held.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an evolving situation, said the U.S. government “has no idea” what the Turkish operation would look like, whether it would be a small, symbolic incursion or a major offensive intended to push 30 or 40 kilometers into Syria.
U.S. officials said an operation deep into Syria could further jeopardize the security of ISIS prisons. “There are many potential disastrous outcomes to this,” the official said.
The White House announcement comes only two days after the Pentagon completed its most recent joint patrol with Turkish forces in northern Syria, a central element of the U.S. effort to build trust in northern Syria. But a series of similar patrols and other measures overseen from a joint U.S.-Turkish military hub in southern Turkey have not reduced Ankara’s impatience to establish the buffer zone it has envisioned.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper described ongoing U.S.-Turkish cooperation in northern Syria, saying that his Turkish counterpart had agreed in a call last week “that we need to make the security mechanism work.”
In negotiations, the United States had said it would agree to a strip along the border to be cleared of Syrian Kurdish fighters and jointly patrolled by the United States and Turkey on the ground and in the air. That strip is about five miles wide, only about a quarter of what the Turks have demanded.
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Erdogan’s plan to send at least 3 million Syrian refugees into the 140 mile-long strip is also counter to what the United States says was part of the agreement they had reached to allow only the 700,000 to 800,000 refugees who originally fled the area to resettle there.
The joint patrols are taking place in only about a third of the border length with a plan to gradually expand them. In addition to not liking U.S. terms for the agreement, Erdogan believes the United States is dragging its feet in implementing it.
Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Erdogan, wrote on Twitter that Turkey’s proposed border zone would keep Turkey safe while allowing displaced Syrians to return. “Turkey is strong and determined,” he said.
After months of warning about the turmoil such a move could have, U.S. officials said they are now watching Turkey’s actions closely to inform their own decisions about how quickly they must move the hundreds of troops expected to be affected.
“We're gonna get out of the way,” another U.S. official said.
There are about 1,000 U.S. troops in northeast Syria.
The SDF also predicted that Islamic State fighters would break out of prison camps the SDF manages in different areas of Syria.
The potential for greater risk to Islamic State prisons and camps comes after months of unsuccessful efforts by the Trump administration to convince countries in Europe and elsewhere to repatriate their citizens.
The White House statement said that “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters” in that area. “The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer,” Grisham said.
The planned offensive comes amid already heightened U.S. tensions with its NATO ally Turkey, over Ankara’s plans to operate a sophisticated Russian air defense system.
Fahim reported from Batman, Turkey. Sarah Dadouch in Beirut and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.
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