U.S. troops began pulling back from positions in Syria near its border with Turkey, following a policy shift by President Trump that caught many off guard, with the president reiterating on Monday his longstanding vow to end U.S. involvement in “endless wars”.
The move gives the green light to Turkey to invade Syria and dismantles years of Washington’s de-facto state-building in the area. It also effectively abandons Kurdish fighters allied with the United States in the fight against Islamic State.
On Sunday, after a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the White House issued a statement saying U.S. troops would not interfere in a Turkish military operation to remove U.S.-backed Kurdish forces along Syria’s border with Turkey, and that U.S. troops would “no longer be in the immediate area.”
Hours later, American soldiers began a pullout from positions in Ras Al-Ayn and Tal Abyad, two towns along the border in northern Syria, local news channels reported.
Turkey believes the Kurds, who form the nexus of U.S.-backed militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, are inextricably linked to Kurdish separatist movements in its own territory it counts as terrorists.
Since 2014, the Kurds had become the United States’ most dependable partner in Syria against Islamic State and its caliphate, which at its zenith comprised a third of both Syria and Iraq.
On Monday, Trump elaborated on his decision on Twitter saying “it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars.”
“The United States was supposed to be in Syria for 30 days, that was many years ago. We stayed and got deeper and deeper into battle with no aim in sight,” Trump tweeted. “WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN.”
He also excoriated European allies for not taking back their citizens who had gone to fight in Islamic State’s ranks, and are now held among more than 10,000 prisoners in Syrian Democratic Forces-run detention centers in northeast Syria.
“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their ‘neighborhood,’ ” Trump said.
The White House statement said Turkey would “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.’ ”
Islamic State is also known as ISIS and by its Arabic acronym, Daesh.
The announcement was welcome news for Erdogan; the last several years, the Turkish leader has issued increasingly bombastic statements slamming the U.S. for its support of the Kurds.
In a news conference Monday, he said he would pay an official visit to Washington next month to discuss the “depth of the operation,” according to Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah.
Though the Islamic State extremists lost the last of the territory they held in Iraq and Syria earlier this year, and despite Trump’s often-stated intention to withdraw American troops from Syria, the U.S. has nevertheless maintained a presence in northeastern parts of the country for counter-terrorism operations and to prevent the Syrian government and its Iranian ally from taking over.
Its Kurdish allies, in the meantime, had leveraged that support to undergird a self-administered canton, which the U.S. had touted emerged as an alternative to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The announcement was seen as nothing less than “a stab in the back,” said Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, in an interview on Monday with the Al-Hadath TV station.
The group also issued a statement saying any Turkish operation in northern and eastern Syria would have “a huge negative effect” on the war against Islamic State.
Later, U.S. officials implied that northeastern Syria was less a prize for Erdogan than a poisoned chalice where unilateral action “creates risks for Turkey,” according to a statement from Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman.
Hoffman said that U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the Chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley had informed their Turkish counterparts that Turkey, along with European nations and others, would be “responsible for thousands of ISIS fighters.”
“We will work with our NATO allies and Coalition partners to reiterate to Turkey the possible destabilizing consequences of potential actions to Turkey, the region, and beyond,” said the statement.
Trump too issued a threat warning Turkey from actions he considered off limits.
“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate,” Trump tweeted, “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”
“They must, with Europe and others, watch over the captured ISIS fighters and families. The U.S. has done far more than anyone could have ever expected, including the capture of 100% of the ISIS Caliphate. It is time now for others in the region, some of great wealth, to protect their own territory. THE USA IS GREAT!”
When Turkey will launch the operation — which it has dubbed “Fountains of Peace” — and what its scope will be remain unclear, but a Turkish official speaking to the Sky News Arabia broadcaster said Ankara would wait for the U.S. to withdraw its forces before entering.
As for the scope, Ankara said it required a 20-mile “safe zone” along the border to combat what it described as terrorists and resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it has hosted since the breakout of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
Yet such a buffer zone would not include Al-Hol, the main Kurdish-run detention center that holds some 70,000 Islamic State family members and sympathizers, located almost 50 miles south of Turkey’s border with Syria and 9 miles west of the Iraqi border.
Erdogan dismissed as exaggerations the number of ISIS prisoners, adding that the U.S. “is working to decide how to handle them.”
Any offensive is liable to siphon off SDF fighters from guarding the detention centers, however. And it comes at a time when the prisoners have already attempted mass escapes, reports say, and the extremists’ leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, exhorted the group’s adherents in a recent speech to help break them out.
Also unclear is the effect this would have on European allies and U.S. plans to have them commit troops to northeast Syria.
Yet for Trump, the politics of the move are local, said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in a phone interview on Monday.
“Trump is in campaign mode again. This entire situation is a reflection of the constant sense of fear within the White House that the Trump presidency is fighting for its survival,” Heras said,
“Whenever that happens, the administration looks for a ‘Hail Mary,’ and this is a Hail Mary pass to try to excite the base.”
But the effect of his statement was felt far beyond Washington. In northeast Syria, activists reported a spike in the currency exchange rate against the dollar, while others said dozens had already begun evacuating from Tal Abyad.