Turkey said Tuesday it will go ahead with a military operation in northeastern Syria and won’t bow to threats over its Syria plans, an apparent reply to President Trump’s warning to limit the scope of its expected assault.
Trump said this week the United States would step aside for an expected Turkish attack on Syrian Kurdish fighters, who have fought alongside Americans for years. But he then threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if they went too far.
Trump later cast his decision to pull back U.S. troops from parts of northeast Syria as fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw from “endless wars” in the Middle East. Critics, including fellow Republicans, said he was sacrificing a U.S. ally, the Syrian Kurds, and undermining American credibility.
The president’s statements have reverberated on all sides of the divide in Syria and the Middle East.
In Ankara, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said Turkey was intent on combating Kurdish fighters across its border in Syria and on creating a zone where Turkey could resettle Syrian refugees.
“Where Turkey’s security is concerned, we determine our own path, but we set our own limits,” Oktay said.
Turkey has been building up reinforcements on its side of the border in preparation for an assault. At least two convoys of buses carrying Turkish commandos headed to the border Tuesday, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
In the Syrian capital of Damascus, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad called on the country’s Kurds to rejoin the government side after apparently being abandoned by their U.S. allies. His comments were the first Syrian reaction since Trump’s announcement Sunday.
“The homeland welcomes all its sons, and Damascus will solve all Syrian problems in a positive way, away from violence,” Mekdad said in an interview with the pro-government daily Al Watan.
The Syrian government “will defend all Syrian territory and will not accept any occupation of any land or iota of the Syrian soil,” Mekdad said about the expected Turkish incursion.
Trump’s statement has infuriated the Kurds, who are bracing for an imminent Turkish attack. The Kurds stand to lose the autonomy they gained from Damascus during Syria’s civil war, now in its ninth year, and could see Turkey seize much of the territory where the Kurdish population is concentrated.
President Bashar Assad’s government abandoned the predominantly Kurdish area in northern Syria at the height of the civil war to focus on more important areas where the military was being challenged by rebels. The U.S. then partnered with the Kurdish fighters to fight the militant group Islamic State, at the cost of thousands of fighters’ lives.
The danger now could prompt the Kurds to eventually negotiate with Assad’s government for some form of protection.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on all parties in northeastern Syria “to exercise maximum restraint,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have pledged to fight back against any Turkish assault, raising the potential for an eruption of new warfare in Syria. “We will not hesitate for a moment in defending our people,” it said in a statement.