The United States (US) has begun to withdraw its forces from positions in northern Syria after it gave the green light for Turkey to conduct a military incursion into the country last night, marking a sudden shift in its stance towards the move.
The White House’s decision followed on from a phone call between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last night, after which it released a statement announcing that “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria.”
Regarding its role in the move, it confirmed that “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS [Daesh] territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.” The US added that Turkey would now be responsible for all captured Daesh fighters who are currently being detained by the Kurdish militias in northern Syria.
Whether a full military withdrawal is taking place or whether troops were being moved from certain areas only was not specified in the statement. As of last month there were allegedly 1,000 US troops in Syria.
The move follows on from a warning by Erdogan on Saturday that the operation could be launched “maybe today or tomorrow,” and comes after months of the same threat being made on a regular basis. It also comes almost two months after the US and Turkey struck an agreement to cooperate and work together to set up a joint cooperation centre near the Syrian border in order to establish the safe zone in north-east Syria, which is the primary motivation for Turkey’s manoeuvre.
Turkey has long insisted on the establishment of a safe zone due to the presence of Kurdish militias such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, currently entrenched east of the Euphrates River, which Turkey sees as a national security threat. This, as Erdogan sees it, would clear the US-backed Kurdish militias from its border region with Syria and allow at least two million refugees to be moved to that safe zone, providing displaced Syrians with a new home in their country.
Since the start of the two countries’ cooperation, however, the US has reportedly been delaying the process and obstructing many of Turkey’s demands, such as the length and depth of the safe zone and its desire to govern the zone itself. This has confirmed previously-made predictions by many in Turkey that the safe zone project will be undermined by the US just as a similar cooperation in the town of Manbij in 2017 resulted in the role of the Turkish forces being side-lined.
The military operation that is set to be conducted now is the third Turkish incursion into northern Syria, following on from Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in 2018, and fulfils Erdogan’s statement last week that Turkey must take its own course in setting up the safe zone and that it must go through the process alone.
Many, both on the Kurdish side and in the West, are accusing the US of abandoning the Syrian Kurds, contradicting years of the Trump administration’s support and arming of the Kurdish militias in their fight against Daesh.