ISTANBUL — U.S. troops started withdrawing from areas in northeastern Syria along Turkey’s border, U.S.-backed Kurdish forces said on Monday ahead of a planned Turkish incursion.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed the move before leaving on Monday on a two-day official visit to Serbia.
“It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home,” President Donald Trump wrote in a series of tweets on Monday, justifying his decision to pull out U.S. troops and pave the way for Turkey’s assault.
The United States has borne too much of the burden of fighting Islamic State, Trump said, as he criticized European countries as well as Syrian Kurdish militias, who have been the most effective group in fighting the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria.
“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,” Trump said, adding in all-caps that “WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN.”
The withdrawal came hours after the White House announced late Sunday that Turkey “will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” in a stunning reversal of US policy.
The statement followed a phone call between Trump and Erdogan, who has long threatened a unilateral offensive in northeastern Syria. The two will meet in Washington in November, Erdogan said.
“Despite our efforts to avoid any military escalation with Turkey … the US forces have not fulfilled their obligations and withdrew their forces from the border areas with Turkey,” said the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so,” Trump tweeted.
There are about 1,000 U.S. forces throughout north-eastern Syria, top US military officials said recently.
The SDF said it lost 11,000 of its forces over five years as it battled Islamic State.
“US forces on the ground showed us that this is not how they value friendship&alliance,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted. “However, the decision by the @POTUS (Trump) is about to ruin the trust and cooperation between the SDF and US built during the fight against ISIS. Alliances are built on mutual trust.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said U.S. coalition forces withdrew at dawn from Ras al-Ain and the strategic Syrian town of Tal Abyad, located in northern al-Raqqa province near the Turkish border.
SDF’s general command said any Turkish assault “will have a significant negative impact on our war against (Islamic State).”
This would be Turkey’s third offensive in Syria, after Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in 2018.
Bali said Washington owes them an
to the buffer zone agreement. The SDF had agreed to dismantle its defensive positions in what would be the buffer zone in return for the US preventing a Turkish offensive.
In August, the US and Turkey agreed to set up a buffer zone in north-eastern Syria. Ankara was pushing to remove US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces there, which it claims are tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) waging an insurgency within Turkey, and resettle 1 million-2 million Syrian refugees.
Turkey repeatedly criticized the US of stalling on the zone, although both sides conducted joint aerial and ground patrols.
While the European Union warned Turkey against the offensive, the UN said it was concerned about the impact on the 1.7-million-strong civilian population in the area.
Turkey has not elaborated on the scope of its operation, but Erdogan reiterated on Monday: “We said we could enter anytime — we are continuing our determination.”
The White House made clear that U.S. armed forces “will not support or be involved” in the Turkish operation, and its troops would “no longer be in the immediate area.”
Trump said Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will have to figure out what to do with captured Islamic State fighters. He took aim at Europe for refusing to repatriate Islamic State detainees from their countries, thinking that “the U.S. is always the sucker.”
The SDF said Islamic State leaders are still hiding out in the region and their cells will break out 12,000 of their militants from prisons and free their families being held in camps.
Erdogan said the number of captured militants was a bit exaggerated.
Al-Hol camp, about 30 miles east of the city of al-Hasakah, is one of the largest camps in northern and eastern Syria.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has said the al-Hol camp population is close to 70,000, most of them families of Islamic State fighters.
Trump ally Republican Senator Lindsey Graham slammed the president’s “impulsive” decision, telling Fox News: “I will do everything I can to sanction Turkey’s military and their economy if they step one foot into Syria.”
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