As Turkey Signals Imminent Operation in Syria, Some Complain About Trump’s Threats

Patrick Goodenough | October 9, 2019 | 4:48am EDT
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A Turkish Army tank drives towards the border with Syria on Tuesday. (Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)

( – Turkey’s defense ministry signaled Tuesday that a military operation in northeastern Syria was imminent, even as some Turkish politicians complained about President Trump’s threats to destroy the country’s economy if it acts in a way that he views as “off limits” in Syria.

Monday’s Twitter warning that his administration would “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy was followed by another on Tuesday in which Trump cautioned that “any unforced or unnecessary fighting by Turkey [in Syria] will be devastating to their economy and to their very fragile currency.”

Tuesday’s presidential tweets also made clear that what he had vaguely referred to a day earlier as “off limits” behavior was a reference to Ankara’s plans for Syrian Kurdish forces who have been U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS.

“We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters,” Trump tweeted. He added that the U.S. was supporting “the Kurds” financially and with weapons. (Trump also said the relationship with NATO and trading partner Turkey has been “very good.”)

Since the White House announced on Sunday night that U.S. troops would be pulled back ahead of a Turkish military operation in northern Syria, Trump has been accused – even by some allies – of betraying the Kurdish fighters.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which led the campaign against ISIS in Syria and now control large swathes of territory in northern Syria, include Arabs and Turkmen but are dominated by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters.

Ankara regards the YPG as terrorists due to their affiliation to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting a separatist struggle against the Turkish state for three decades.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Ankara last month. Some worry that withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria will benefit countries hostile to U.S. interests. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to launch a military operation to purge the region of “terrorists.” He then wants to resettle 2-3 million Syrians, who fled the conflict in their homeland, into a “safe zone” adjacent to the Syria-Turkey border – a strip of territory about 19 miles wide and 300 miles long, running from Manbij near the Euphrates River in the west to the Iraq border in the east.

On Tuesday, his defense ministry tweeted, “Turkish Armed Forces will never tolerate the creation of a terror corridor at our borders. All preparations for the operation have been completed.”

Trump’s threats about Turkey’s economy drew criticism from Vice President Fuat Oktay, who said in a speech in Ankara that Turkey does not act according to threats.

“Turkey sets its own way when it comes to Turkey’s national security,” he said, reiterating that the government won’t tolerate “a terror corridor” or terror state” near its border.

The speaker of the Turkish Parliament, Mustafa Sentop, told journalists nobody could threaten Turkey, and that Trump’s tweets were probably directed at a domestic audience.

‘No changes to our force presence in Syria at this time’

The Department of Defense on Tuesday disputed that Trump was making Syria policy without consulting military leaders.

“Despite continued misreporting to the contrary, Secretary [of Defense Mark] Esper and Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark] Milley were consulted over the last several days by the President regarding the situation and efforts to protect U.S. forces in northern Syria in the face of military action by Turkey,” said chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman.

“The Department’s position has been and remains that establishing a safe zone in northern Syria is the best path forward to maintaining stability,” he said, in reference to a bilateral initiative involving joint patrols, which Turkey agreed upon with the U.S. in August but has since complained is moving quickly enough.

“Unfortunately, Turkey has chosen to act unilaterally,” Hoffman continued. “As a result we have moved the U.S. forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety.”

“We have made no changes to our force presence in Syria at this time,” he added.

That contradicts the reading that the White House statement Sunday signaled a withdrawal from Syria of the more the 1,000 U.S. troops deployed there. Trump on Twitter put the number of soldiers that were moved away from the immediate area of the planned Turkish operation at 50.

Still, Trump has said repeatedly that he wants to bring all the troops home, and did so again as he met with military leaders in the Cabinet Room on Monday evening.

“We want to bring our soldiers back home,” he said. “These are the endless wars.”

Critics, including some senior Republicans, argue that withdrawing could benefit hostile elements like the Assad regime and its allies Iran and Russia, and facilitate a resurgence of ISIS.

(A Department of Defense Inspector General report to Congress in August said that, according to the anti-ISIS coalition, the partial drawdown of U.S. troops – there were 2,000 in Syria last year – has already “decreased the support available to partner forces at a time when they needed training and equipping to respond to ISIS resurgent cells.”)

Other criticisms of the Syria policy include concerns about relying on Erdogan, an Islamist autocrat who claims to want to fight terror but has long supported Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.

Erdogan, moreover, has a poor record when it comes to preventing foreign fighters from traveling to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS’ jihad.

“About 90% of foreign fighters entering Iraq and Syria to fight with al Qaeda or the Islamic State traversed the Turkish border, often with the facilitation of Turkish security forces,” American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Rubin recalled in a column this week. “So too did weaponry.”

Rubin, a former Pentagon official, wrote that putting Erdogan in charge of containing ISIS “is akin to trusting Iran to protect international shipping lanes.”



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