Berlin (CNSNews.com) – President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria has sparked concern over the future of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces there as Turkey prepares an offensive to eliminate what it considers “terrorists.”
In a tweet following a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump said the pullout of 2,000 U.S. troops who have been supporting local allies fighting ISIS in eastern Syria will be “highly coordinated” with the Turks.
Coalition allies such as Britain and France have criticized Trump’s move, disputing his assertion that ISIS has been defeated. They and others are also concerned about the fate of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), considered an effective U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS since 2015.
Prominent in the SDF are fighters from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), a group Erdogan views as terrorists because of its links to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) – which Turkey, as well as the U.S. and European Union, has designated a terrorist organization.
With U.S. and coalition support, the SDF has captured much of northern Syria, which borders Turkey, and large parts of eastern Syria from ISIS.
Turkey’s government worries that the existence of Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria near its border will boost the Kurdish insurgency in eastern Turkey, where the PKK has been waging a separatist campaign for three decades.
Erdogan said last week Turkey will postpone its anti-YPG offensive until the U.S. withdrawal is complete, but he has also made clear he remains committed to the plan.
In a speech on Monday, he declared that the Syrian people would not be left to the “tyranny” of the YPG.
According to a tweet by Trump early this week, Erdogan had promised to “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria … and he is a man who can do it plus, Turkey is right ‘next door.’
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu told reporters Tuesday that Turkey was “determined” to take control of Syrian territory east of the Euphrates River – where the SDF/YPG forces are located. He did not provide a time frame.
“This is about a national security issue. If we don’t do it today, we would pay a heavier price in the future,” he said.
Cavusoglu also slammed France, which has said it will continue supporting the SDF despite a U.S. troop withdrawal.
French officials met with SDF leaders last week, and President Emmanuel Macron pledged reinforcements to secure against attacks by the ISIS and against “foreign aggression” – an evident reference to Turkey.
“We have told them is that it’s okay if they are there to contribute to the future of Syria, but if they are doing to protect the YPG, it will be futile,” the Turkish minister said.
Turkish troops, military vehicles and artillery pieces have reportedly been crossing the border into northern Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, predicts that the SDF will likely refocus its operations away from the anti-ISIS campaign in the event of a Turkish offensive.
“If the Turkish military operation starts (for which preparations are underway in the border between the Tigris and Euphrates and Manbij area), the SDF intent[sic] to withdraw all their fighters from the fronts with the ‘Islamic State’ Organization, and move them to the front lines with the Turkish Forces,” it said.
“There is some credence to the allegations that Turkey will move against the Kurds following the U.S. withdrawal,” said Joshua Stowell, editor of Global Security Review. “In a more strategic sense, Turkey seems to be using the move as a way to further cement its role as a regional hegemon, ensuring that Ankara will have a voice in any political settlement over Syria in the future.”
Apart from its own forces, Turkey is also relying on Syrian rebel allies, who are being deployed near the Kurdish-held town of Manbij, according to Turkey’s state news agency Anadolu.
The SDF, meanwhile, is looking to the Assad regime for possible protection against the expected Turkish offensive, once the U.S. forces have withdrawn.
Assad’s Russian ally says the vacuum left when the Americans leave the area should obviously be filled by “the Syrian government, in accordance with international law.”