US armed forces will not be involved or support a planned Turkish operation in northern Syria, the White House press secretary said on Sunday after a phone call between President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
US forces “having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate’ will no longer be in the immediate area,” the press secretary said in a statement.
US forces in northern Syria have started pulling back from areas along the border with Turkey, a Kurdish-led force and a war monitor said Monday.
The US’s decision to withdraw its forces from Syria was “a stab in the back” and a surprise for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a SDF spokesman told al-Hadath.
The Syrian Democratic Forces said 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
The White House says Turkey will soon invade northern Syria, casting uncertainty on the fate of the Kurdish fighters allied with the US against in a campaign against ISIS.
Kurdish fighters warned on Monday that a Turkish attack would bring back ISIS.
The statement from the White House also said “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years,” as France, Germany and other European nations that they had come from had refused US requests to take them back.
Turkey is determined to clear its border with Syria of militants and assure the security of the country, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday, after the White House said Ankara will soon launch an offensive into northern Syria.
Turkey is highly likely to wait until US soldiers have withdrawn from the area where Ankara plans to carry out a military operation in northern Syria before launching an offensive, a senior Turkish official also told Reuters on Monday.
The Turkish presidency said after the call that Erdogan and Trump had agreed to meet in Washington next month, following an invitation by the US president.
During the phone call, Erdogan expressed his frustration with the failure of US military and security officials to implement the agreement between the two countries, the Turkish presidency said.
Erdogan also reiterated the necessity of the safe zone to eliminate the threats from the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara considers a terrorist organisation, and to create the conditions necessary for the return of Syrian refugees, it said.
Meanwhile, the UN said Monday that it was “preparing for the worst” in northeast Syria after the US said it would step aside to allow for Turkish military operations in the area.
“We don’t know what is going to happen... we are preparing for the worst,” the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, said in Geneva, stressing that there were “a lot of unanswered questions” about the consequences of the operation.
The UN has drawn up a contingency plan in case residents from northeast Syria will be displaced, and will need access to provide food, medical supplies to those in acute need, a UN official told reporters.
Establishing a safe zone
The NATO allies agreed in August to establish a zone in northeast Syria along the border with Turkey. Ankara says the zone should be cleared of the YPG.
Turkey says it wants to settle up to 2 million Syrian refugees in the zone. It currently hosts 3.6 million Syrians sheltering from Syria’s more than eight-year conflict.
Turkey says the United States, which supports the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a YPG-led force that defeated ISIS fighters in Syria, is moving too slowly to set up the zone. It has repeatedly warned of launching an offensive on its own into northeast Syria, where US forces are stationed alongside the SDF.
The two countries are also at odds over how far the zone should extend into Syria and who should control it. Turkey says it should be 30 km deep.
The ties between the allies have also been pressured over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 defense missiles and the trial of local US consulate employees in Turkey.