US forces in Syria started pulling back on Monday from Turkish border areas, opening the way for Ankara’s threatened military invasion and heightening fears of a jihadist resurgence.
The withdrawal from key positions along Syria’s northern border came after the White House said it would step aside to allow for a Turkish operation President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned could come at any moment.
The diplomatic and political turmoil first erupted late on Sunday when the White House announced it was removing troops in the Syria-Turkey border area and that “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria”.
That came shortly after a phone call between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Erdogan, who has long wanted to target the Kurdish militias operating in Syria.
The move marks a major shift in US policy, and effectively abandons the Kurds, Washington’s main ally in Syria during the years-long battle against the Islamic State jihadist group.
Trump said on Monday he will ‘obliterate’ Turkey’s economy if Ankara does anything that in his ‘great and unmatched wisdom’ he considers to be “off limits” in Syria.
Trump’s extraordinary Twitter warning against NATO ally Turkey came just after the White House announced a US military drawdown in Turkish-Syrian border areas.
That decision appeared to give Turkey a green light to attack its longtime Kurdish foes, even though they have been fighting alongside US forces against the Islamic State extremist group inside Syria.
Trump’s latest tweets appeared to signal a climbdown, following a storm of criticism from his own Republican party that he was betraying the Kurdish guerrillas.
“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!),” he wrote.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led militia that controls much of northeastern Syria, said early on Monday in a statement that “US forces withdrew from the border areas with Turkey”.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor confirmed that US forces had pulled back from key positions in Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad.
A US base in Ras al-Ain was empty of personnel on Monday, said an AFP photographer, who had seen troops there the night before. Turkey has sent reinforcements to the border in recent weeks, and Erdogan said Monday in televised remarks the long-threatened offensive could “come any night without warning”.
His comments came after Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Twitter that Turkey was “determined to ensure our country’s existence and security by clearing terrorists from this region”.
He was referring to the SDF, which has ties to Kurdish militants inside Turkey and which Ankara considers a terrorist organisation.
Fearing yet another chapter of bloodshed and mass displacement in the Syrian conflict, the United Nations said it was “preparing for the worst”.
The European Union warned that civilians would once again bear the brunt of a military assault.
In its statement, the White House made clear it would stand aside when its NATO ally Turkey moves in.
Trump on Monday said the region would have to “figure the situation out” and that America needed to get out of “ridiculous endless wars.” But US Senator Lindsey Graham called the move “a disaster in the making” and “a stain on America’s honour,” warning of a Senate resolution demanding the White House alter course. SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said Washington’s decision “is about to ruin the trust and cooperation between the SDF and US”.