Turkey will not bow to threats over its Syria plans, the Turkish vice president said Tuesday in an apparent response to President Donald Trump’s warning to Ankara the previous day about the scope of its planned military incursion into northeastern Syria.
In Ankara, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said Turkey was intent on combating Syrian Kurdish fighters across its border in Syria and on creating a zone that would allow Turkey to resettle Syrian refugees there.
“Where Turkey’s security is concerned, we determine our own path but we set our own limits,” Oktay said.
Meanwhile Turkey’s defense ministry announced that preparations for the offensive have been “completed.”
Trump said earlier this week following a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the United States would step aside for an expected Turkish attack on Syrian Kurdish fighters, who have fought alongside Americans for years. But he then threatened to destroy the Turks’ economy if they went too far.
The US president later cast his decision to abandon the Kurdish fighters in Syria as fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw from “endless war” in the Middle East, even as Republican critics and others said he was sacrificing a US ally and undermining American credibility.
Even Trump’s staunchest Republican congressional allies expressed outrage at the prospect of abandoning Syrian Kurds who had fought the Islamic State group with American arms and advice. It was the latest example of Trump’s approach to foreign policy that critics condemn as impulsive, that he sometimes reverses and that frequently is untethered to the advice of his national security aides.
“A catastrophic mistake,” said Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican leader.
“Shot in the arm to the bad guys,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Trump said Monday he understood criticism from fellow GOP leaders but disagreed. He said he could also name supporters, but he didn’t.
Trump appeared largely unconcerned at the prospect of Turkish forces attacking the Kurds, who include a faction he described as “natural enemies” of the Turks.
“But I have told Turkey that if they do anything outside of what we would think is humane … they could suffer the wrath of an extremely decimated economy,” Trump said.
This all comes at a pivotal moment of Trump’s presidency. House Democrats are marching forward with their impeachment inquiry into whether he compromised national security or abused his office by seeking negative information on former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival, from Ukraine and other foreign countries.
As he faces the impeachment inquiry, Trump has appeared more focused on making good on his political pledges, even at the risk of sending a troubling signal to American allies abroad.
“I campaigned on the fact that I was going to bring our soldiers home and bring them home as rapidly as possible,” he said.
The strong pushback on Capitol Hill prompted Trump to recast as well as restate his decision, but with renewed bombast and self-flattery.
He promised to destroy the Turkish economy “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits.”
As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, 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 (I’ve done before!). They must, with Europe and others, watch over…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2019
One official described that White House announcement the US would get its troops out of the way of the Turkish forces as a botched effort appeared aimed at making Trump look bold for ending a war. The official said attempts by the Pentagon and State Department to make the statement stronger in its opposition to Turkey’s military action were unsuccessful.
An official familiar with the Erdogan call said the Turkish president was “ranting” at Trump, saying the safe zone was not working and that Turkey couldn’t trust the US military to do what was needed. And in reaction, Trump said the US wanted no part of an invasion and would withdraw troops.
Trump’s statements have reverberated on all sides of the divide in Syria and the Mideast.
In the Syrian capital of Damascus, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad called on the country’s Kurds to rejoin the government side after apparently being abandoned by their US allies.
Mekdad’s comments were the first Syrian reaction since Trump’s announcement on Sunday and as northeastern Syria braces for an imminent Turkish attack on Syrian Kurdish militias. Trump’s statement has infuriated the Kurds, who stand to lose the autonomy they gained from Damascus during Syria’s civil war, now in its ninth year.
“The homeland welcomes all its sons and Damascus will solve all Syrian problems in a positive way, away from violence,” Mekdad said in an interview with the pro-government daily Al-Watan.
As for the expected Turkish incursion, he added that the Syrian government “will defend all Syrian territory and will not accept any occupation of any land or iota of the Syrian soil.”
The Syrian Kurdish force has pledged to fight back, raising the potential for an eruption of new warfare in Syria.
“We will not hesitate for a moment in defending our people” against Turkish troops, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said in a statement, adding that it has lost 11,000 fighters in the war against the Islamic State group in Syria.
Turkey, which considers Kurdish fighters in Syria terrorists and links them to a decades-old insurgency in Turkey, has already launched two major incursions into northern Syria over the past years. The first was in 2016, when Turkey and Syrian opposition fighters it backs attacked areas held by the Islamic State group west of the Euphrates River. Last year Turkey launched an attack on the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin, leading to the displacement of some 300,000 people.
“We tell them that they have lost everything and must not lose themselves,” Mekdad added.
Also Tuesday, Iran urged Turkey not to go ahead with its planned an attack on Syrian Kurds, the Iranian state TV reported. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, to express Tehran’s opposition to the anticipated Turkish operation.
Zarif urged Turkey to respect Syria’s integrity and sovereignty, the report said.
Iran, Turkey and Russia have been working together as part of the so-called Astana group on the Syrian civil war, talks that have run parallel to UN efforts to find a solution to the conflict.
Trump’s announcement threw the military situation in Syria into fresh chaos and injected deeper uncertainty into the region.
US involvement in Syria has been fraught with peril since it started in 2014 with the insertion of small numbers of special operations forces to recruit, train, arm and advise local fighters to combat the Islamic State. Trump entered the White House in 2017 intent on getting out of Syria, and even before the counter-IS military campaign reclaimed the last militant strongholds early this year, he declared victory and said troops would leave.
In recent weeks, the US and Turkey had reached an apparent accommodation of Turkish concerns about the presence of Kurdish fighters, seen in Turkey as a threat. American and Turkish soldiers had been conducting joint patrols in a zone along the border. As part of that work, barriers designed to protect the Syrian Kurds were dismantled amid assurances that Turkey would not invade.
Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that a US withdrawal from Syria would be a major boost to Russia’s position there.
He added that other allies in the region, including the Kurds, will “look at this withdrawal as US unwillingness to stand up for its rights and maintain its alliances in the region.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., another strong Trump supporter, said in an appearance on “Fox & Friends” that he had concerns.
“I want to make sure we keep our word for those who fight with us and help us,” he said, adding that, “If you make a commitment and somebody is fighting with you, America should keep their word.”
Former Trump administration officials also expressed concern.
Nikki Haley, who served as US ambassador to the United Nations, said the US “must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back… Leaving them to die is a big mistake.”
Turkey considers the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged an insurgency against Turkey for 35 years.