On Sunday, President Donald Trump threw his support behind a Turkish military operation to control a strategic sector of northern Syria, in a move to facilitate the United States military withdrawal from Syria.
While the move might allow Trump to fulfill his December 2018 call to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the decision could leave once U.S.-backed Kurdish forces uncertain about their future, the New York Times reported. Turkey currently views the Kurdish forces as a terrorist organization and it is unclear what Turkish forces will do if they encounter Kurdish fighters.
The Kurdish forces, which have fought alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been a regular U.S. partner in the region and have provided much of the manpower in the U.S.-backed efforts to defeat the Islamic State.
The move may also run against the recommendations of Pentagon and State Department officials who have called for at least a small continuing U.S. presence to continue to suppress the ISIS terrorist group as well as to provide a check against the Russian and Iranian presence in Syria.
“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” the White House said in a statement late Sunday night. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.”
In tweets explaining his decision, Trump criticized getting involved in Syria in the first place.
“The United States was supposed to be in Syria for 30 days, that was many years ago,” Trump tweeted. “We stayed and got deeper and deeper into battle with no aim in sight.”
The United States was supposed to be in Syria for 30 days, that was many years ago. We stayed and got deeper and deeper into battle with no aim in sight. When I arrived in Washington, ISIS was running rampant in the area. We quickly defeated 100% of the ISIS Caliphate,…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2019
Trump reiterated his call to exit Syria, following the proclaimed defeat of the ISIS caliphate in March of this year.
Trump reportedly spoke directly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday and indicated that between 100 and 150 U.S. personnel would be pulled back in advance of any Turkish military operation, but U.S. forces will still have some presence for the time being.
On Monday, witnesses reportedly saw U.S. forces depart from two observation posts in northeastern Syria.
According to New York Times sources, the acceptance of the Turkish plan may be part of a larger U.S. effort to withdraw nearly 1,000 U.S. troops currently in the region.
The Turkish plan will reportedly open up and control a 20-mile-wide, 300-mile-long sector along the on the Syrian side of its border with Turkey. That area will be used to return around a million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.
As part of prior efforts to facilitate the change over, U.S. and Turkish forces have conducted joint reconnaissance flights and ground patrols in the area since August of this year. Kurdish forces have also pulled back somewhat, removing fortified positions along the way.
Still, the SDF appeared surprised and unprepared for the Sunday decision. In a statement, the SDF said they had taken steps to ease tensions with Turkey, but that the U.S. had not fulfilled its side of the bargain. They warned that a Turkish incursion would undermine their progress towards stability since ISIS was defeated. In its statement, the SDF said it will “defend our homeland from the Turkish aggression.”
“The Kurds will never trust America again. They will look for new alliances or independence to protect themselves,” Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, a former marine, said in a Sunday tweet.
Allowing Turkey to move into Northern Syria is one of the most destabilizing moves we can do in the Middle East. The Kurds will never trust America again. They will look for new alliances or Independence to protect themselves. Pompeo has failed again.
— Ruben Gallego (@RubenGallego) October 7, 2019
The decision may also come amid a resurgence in ISIS forces. Kurdish forces currently manage the Al Hol tent camp, which reportedly holds around 10,000 imprisoned ISIS fighters. If a Turkish incursion begins a conflict with the Kurds, it is unclear what will happen with those prisoners.