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Turkey to delay Syria operation, ISIS mounts attack in southeast

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey will postpone a military operation against Syrian Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday as he "cautiously" welcomed a US decision to withdraw its troops in the area.

The surprise announcement from US President Donald Trump this week that Washington would withdraw its roughly 2,000 troops has felled a pillar of American policy in the Middle East. Critics say Trump's move will make it harder to find a diplomatic solution to Syria's seven-year-old civil war.

For Turkey, the step removes a source of friction with the United States. Erdogan has long castigated his NATO ally over its support of Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters against ISIS. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and an offshoot of the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), fighting for Kurdish autonomy across the border on Turkish soil.

NATO allies France and Germany warned that the US change of course risks damaging the fight against ISIS, the jihadists who seized big swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014-15 but have now been squeezed to a sliver of Syrian territory.

The US-backed militia that is spearheaded by the YPG warned on Friday that a Turkish attack would force it to divert fighters from the battle against ISIS to protect its territory. The insurgent group meanwhile launched an attack in Syria's southeast against the US-backed SDF militia, employing car bombs and dozens of militants.

Erdogan announced plans last week to start an operation east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria to oust the YPG from the area that it largely controls. This week, he said the campaign could come at any moment. But on Friday, he cited Washington's move and a talk with Trump as reasons to wait.

"We had decided last week to launch a military incursion... east of the Euphrates river," he said in a speech in Istanbul. "Our phone call with President Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials and statements by the United States, have led us to wait a little longer.

"We have postponed our military operation against the east of the Euphrates river until we see on the ground the result of America's decision to withdraw from Syria."

The Turkish president said, however, that this was not an "open-ended waiting period".

Turkey has repeatedly voiced frustration over what it says is the slow implementation of a deal with Washington to pull YPG fighters out of Manbij, a town in mainly Arab territory west of the Euphrates in northern Syria.