Turkey says it will go ahead with a military operation in northeastern Syria and won’t bow to threats, an apparent reply to U.S. President Donald Trump’s warning to limit the scope of its expected assault.
The Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army, will cross the Syrian border “shortly,” President Tayyip Erdogan’s communications director said early Wednesday (local time).
In a tweet, Fahrettin Altun said that Kurdish militants there could either defect, or Ankara would have to “stop them from disrupting” Turkey’s struggle against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants.
Trump said earlier this week that 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.
The U.S. president later cast his decision to pull back U.S. troops from parts of northeast Syria as fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw from “endless war” in the Middle East.
Republican critics and others said he was sacrificing a U.S. ally, the Syrian Kurds, and undermining American credibility.
“This is really dangerous,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
Joseph Votel, a retired army general who headed military operations in Syria until last spring, wrote on the Atlantic website Tuesday that mutual trust was a key ingredient in the U.S. partnership with the Kurds.
“The sudden policy change this week breaks that trust at the most crucial juncture and leaves our partners with very limited options,” Votel wrote.
Administration officials argue that Trump is employing strategy in response to Erdogan’s insistence during a phone call Sunday that he was moving ahead with a military incursion into Syria. Erdogan seemed to have rejected a joint U.S.-Turkish plan, already being carried out, to create a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border to address Turkey’s security concerns. The execution of that plan included dismantling some Kurdish defensive positions on the Syrian side of the border.
Without initially saying his administration was still trying to talk Erdogan out of invading, Trump ordered the 50 to 100 U.S. troops inside that zone to pull back for safety’s sake. He then emphasized his desire to withdraw from Syria entirely, although no such broader pullout has begun.
Trump’s statements have reverberated on all sides of the divide in Syria and the Mideast.
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.
Later, The Associated Press saw three convoys made up of dozens of military vehicles, including trucks carrying armoured personnel carriers and tanks, driving toward the border town of Akcakale.
‘Exercise maximum restraint’
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 American allies. His comments were the first Syrian reaction since Trump’s announcement on 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.
Watch: U.S. pulls troops from northern Syria
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 al-Assad’s government abandoned the predominantly Kurdish area in northern Syria at the height of Syria’s civil war to focus on more key areas where the military was being challenged by the rebels. The U.S. then partnered with the Kurdish fighters to fight ISIS, at a 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.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on all parties in northeastern Syria “to exercise maximum restraint,” spokesperson 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.
‘All will be erased’
On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the SDF invited Trump to come see the progress the force and the U.S. made in northeastern Syria.
“We have more work to do to keep ISIS from coming back and make our accomplishments permanent. If America leaves, all will be erased,” he tweeted.
Turkey considers Kurdish fighters in Syria terrorists and links them to a decades-old insurgency in Turkey. It has already launched two major incursions into northern Syria over the past years. The first was in 2016, when Turkey and its allied Syrian opposition fighters attacked ISIS-held areas west of the Euphrates River.
Last year, Turkey seized the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, leading to the displacement of some 300,000 people.
Iran on Tuesday urged Turkey not to carry out an offensive, Iranian state TV reported. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, to express Tehran’s opposition to the anticipated Turkish operation.
Zarif urged Turkey to respect Syria’s integrity and sovereignty, the report said.
Iran, Turkey and Russia have been working together as part of the so-called Astana group on the Syrian civil war, talks that have run parallel to UN efforts to find a solution to the conflict.
Trump’s announcement threw the military situation in Syria into fresh chaos and injected deeper uncertainty into the region.
U.S. involvement in Syria has been fraught with peril since it started in 2014 with the insertion of small numbers of special operations forces to recruit, train, arm and advise local fighters in combat against ISIS.
Striking a notably friendlier tone, Trump on Tuesday said Erdogan will visit the White House on Nov. 13. He defended Ankara as a big U.S. trading partner, saying it supplies steel for F-35 fighter jets.
In fact, the Trump administration removed Turkey from the F-35 program last summer because the Turks refused to cancel the purchase of a Russian air defence system that is incompatible with NATO forces. As part of that process, the U.S. will stop using any Turkish supplies and parts by March 2020.