This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
The Turkish Defense Ministry says that all preparations for a possible military operation into northeastern Syria have been completed.
The announcement, made on social media late on October 7, came after U.S. President Donald Trump said the previous day that the United States wouldn’t interfere with Turkey’s desire to establish a safety zone east of the Euphrates River with the long-term goal of settling 2 million Syrian refugees there.
Some 50 U.S. troops in the area began redeployment elsewhere in the country, a senior U.S. administration official said on October 7 during a conference call with journalists.
He denied reports that Washington is pulling out completely from the war-torn country as Trump warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of “big trouble” if any U.S. service members get hurt in the part of Syria where Turkey plans an incursion.
“Any of our people get hurt, big trouble,” Trump said he told Erdogan, whom he spoke with on October 6.
“I’ve told Turkey that if they do anything outside what we think is humane…they could suffer the wrath of an extremely decimated economy,” Trump said.
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay responded on October 8, saying his country “will not be moved by threats.”
Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, to express Tehran’s “opposition” to the anticipated Turkish operation in Syria, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said.
Zarif also “urged respect for Syria’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty” and “stressed the need for the fight against terrorism and for the establishment of stability and security” in the country, a statement quoted Zarif as saying.
U.S. forces began pulling back from areas along the Syrian border with Turkey, reports stated, hours after the United States announced on October 6 that it will step aside for an imminent Turkish operation against Kurdish-led forces in northeastern Syria.
Reuters quoted an unidentified U.S. official as saying on October 7 that U.S. forces had evacuated two observation posts at Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain.
A British-based group monitoring the war in Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed that U.S. forces had pulled back from key positions in the two localities.
“U.S. forces withdrew from the border areas with Turkey,” the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said in a statement.
Turkey has threatened for months to launch a military operation across its border with northeastern Syria, saying it wants to create a “safety zone” there.
Following a phone call between Trump and Erdogan, the White House said on October 6 that Turkey “will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria.”
A statement said the United States, which has hundreds of troops in Syria, won’t “support or be involved” in the operation and that U.S. forces “will no longer be in the immediate area.”
From now on, NATO ally Turkey will take over all responsibility for Islamic State (IS) group fighters captured over the past two years “in the wake of the defeat of the territorial ‘Caliphate’ by the United States,” it said.
The White House said that “France, Germany, and other European nations,” from which many captured IS fighters came, “did not want and refused” to take them back.
The statement makes no reference to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a key element of the SDF.
‘Great And Unmatched Wisdom’
Speaking to reporters on October 7, Erdogan said the Turkish military was ready to launch operations in northeastern Syria at any moment.
“It is absolutely out of the question for us to further tolerate the threats from these terrorist groups,” the Turkish leader said, referring to Kurdish fighters.
However, in a tweet on October 7, Trump warned Turkey against such a move: “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.”
An unnamed senior State Department official insisted that Trump had clearly told Erdogan that Washington did not endorse a Turkish operation — a message also conveyed by the Pentagon.
“We think this operation is a very bad idea. We do not think this operation will provide more security,” the official said.
He said that beyond the small pullback of troops, “there’s no change to our military posture in the northeast.”
In a written statement, Pentagon chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Washington did not endorse a Turkish military operation in Syria and would not support it.
Hoffman said Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the Joint Chiefs chairman, General Mark Milley, told their Turkish counterparts that unilateral military action in the Kurdish area of Syria “creates risks” for Turkey.
The YPG, which has played a leading role in defeating IS in Syria, has until now received strong support from Washington.
Turkey considers the group an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades.
The YPG denies any direct organizational links to the PKK and called the surprise U.S. move a “stab in the back.”
Erdogan also said he planned to visit Washington in the first half of November to discuss plans for the “safe zone” with Trump.
Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million Syrians who have fled the civil war that has raged since 2011. Ankara says wants to move up to 2 million of them into the zone.
SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel said on October 7 that the group had been “stabbed in the back” by the “surprise” U.S. statement.
“There were assurances from the United States of America that it would not allow any Turkish military operations against the region,” Gabriel told the Al-Hadath TV station.
Trump later tweeted that Kurdish militants “fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so.”
“I held off this fight for…almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN,” he also wrote.
Trump added that “Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to…figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters.”
In Geneva, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, said there were “a lot of unanswered questions” about the consequences of a Turkish operation.
“We are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” Moumtzis told journalists.
European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said that “renewed armed hostilities in the northeast will not only exacerbate civilian suffering and lead to massive displacement but will also risk severely undermining current political efforts.”
Ulrike Demmer, a spokeswoman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, also expressed concerns over a Turkish military incursion, saying it “would lead to a further escalation in Syria and contribute to a continued destabilization” of the war-torn country.
“Turkey may take action to ensure its security, meaning resistance to terrorist elements that may be hiding in Syria,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists
But he insisted that “first and foremost we say that the territorial and political integrity of Syria must be observed.”
Meanwhile, France called on Turkey to avoid any actions that could go against the interests of the anti-IS coalition.
The French Foreign ministry also said in a statement on October 7 that militants detained in northeast Syria, including foreigners, should be tried where their crimes were committed.