US steps aside for Turkey to invade northern Syria, crush Kurds
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US steps aside for Turkey to invade northern Syria, crush Kurds

Apparent green light for offensive comes after Trump speaks to Erdogan; White House says American soldiers ‘will not support or be involved in the operation’

Turkish armored vehicles patrol as they conduct a joint ground patrol with American forces in the so-called "safe zone" on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey, near the town of Tal Abyad, northeastern Syria, October 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad)
Turkish armored vehicles patrol as they conduct a joint ground patrol with American forces in the so-called "safe zone" on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey, near the town of Tal Abyad, northeastern Syria, October 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House said Sunday that US forces in northeast Syria will move aside and clear the way for an expected Turkish assault, essentially abandoning Kurdish fighters who fought alongside American forces in the years-long battle to defeat Islamic State militants.

For months, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to launch the military assault against Kurdish forces across the border he views as a threat to his country. US Republicans and Democrats have warned that allowing the Turkish attack could lead to a massacre of the Kurds, sending a troubling message to American allies across the globe.

US troops “will not support or be involved in the operation” and “will no longer be in the immediate area,” in northern Syria, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in an unusual late-Sunday statement that was silent on the fate of the Kurds. There are about 1,000 US troops in Northern Syria, and a senior US official said they will pull back from the area — and potentially depart the country entirely should widespread fighting break out between Turkish and Kurdish forces.

The announcement followed a call between US President Donald Trump and Erdogan, the White House said.

In this photo from July 11, 2018, US President Donald Trump, left, talks with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as they arrive together for a family photo at a summit of heads of state and government at NATO headquarters in Brussels. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

The decision is a stark illustration of Trump’s focus on ending American overseas entanglements — one of his key campaign promises. But his goal of swift withdrawals in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have been stymied by concerns from US officials and American allies about the dangerous voids that would remain. As he faces an impeachment inquiry at home, Trump has grown more mindful about making good on his political pledges, even at the risk of sending a troubling signal to American allies abroad.

Since January, US officials have tried to broker the creation of a “safe zone” in northern Syria to provide a security buffer between the Turkish military and Kurdish forces, but Turkey has repeatedly objected to its slow implementation.

The White House announcement came a day after Erdogan offered the strongest warning yet of a unilateral military operation into northeastern Syria, as the Turkish military has been dispatching units and defense equipment to its border with the area.

“We have given all kinds of warning regarding the (area) east of the Euphrates to the relevant parties. We have acted with enough patience,” Erdogan said.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces threatened to respond forcefully to any Turkish incursion.

A US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter chants slogans before heading to the front line to fight Islamic State militants in their last stronghold of Baghouz, Syria, March 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

“We will not hesitate to turn any unprovoked attack by Turkey into an all-out war on the entire border to DEFEND ourselves and our people,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted Saturday.

A Kurdish official speaking on condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to brief reporters said Monday they expect a limited Turkish operation and are still working to ascertain what will happen with American forces in the region. The official said the view is that Kurdish-led forces have a legitimate right to self-defense.

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.

A senior US official said Sunday that American troops will pull back from the security zone in northeastern Syria, where they have been working with Turkish troops, to an unspecified out-of-the-way location. There have been US troops around Manbij.

The official added that if Turkey goes ahead with the incursion into Syria, it is expected to trigger a large combat response from the SDF, and US troops will almost certainly withdraw completely from Syria. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

In this photo from September 21, 2019, released by the US Army, a US soldier oversees members of the Syrian Democratic Forces as they demolish a Kurdish fighters’ fortification and raise a Tal Abyad Military Council flag over the outpost as part of the so-called “safe zone” near the Turkish border. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Goedl via AP)

In December, Trump announced he was withdrawing American troops from Syria but was met with widespread condemnation for abandoning Kurdish allies to the Turkish assault. The announcement prompted the resignation in protest of then-defense secretary Jim Mattis, and a coordinated effort by then-national security adviser John Bolton to try to protect the Kurds.

US defense leaders have long known that America would not get into an all-out war with Turkey, a NATO ally. But that has been stalled until now by aggressive negotiations by the US, urging Turkey against invading. The official said senior leaders never believed that the US would go to war to save the Kurds, but just hoped to put off that scenario.

The official said US leaders have spoken with the SDF and that the group, which has long fought alongside the US against IS, is disappointed and angry.

Mattis and other Pentagon leaders had worried that withdrawal would lead to a resurgence of IS in the country, particularly if the SDF abandon the prisons holding the fighters to battle Turkey.

The White House statement Sunday said Turkey will take custody of foreign fighters captured in the US-led campaign against the Islamic State group who have been held by the Kurdish forces supported by the US.

Ambassador James Jeffrey, the State Department envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State group, and Trump have said the Kurds have custody of thousands of captured Islamic State militants. They include about 2,500 highly dangerous foreign fighters from Europe and elsewhere whose native countries have been reluctant to take them back and another 10,000 or so captured fighters from Syria and Iraq.

Trump has repeatedly demanded that European countries, particularly France and Germany, take back their citizens who joined the militant organization.

Illustrative: In this photo from April 3, 2018, a Kurdish prison security guard, left, escorts a 19-year-old former fighter of the Islamic State extremist group, into the courtroom of a Kurdish-run terrorism court, in Qamishli, north Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Kurdish officials have expressed concerns of a possible breakout by IS prisoners in case of fighting in the area. In a recently released audio recording, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called on members of the extremist group to do all they can to free IS detainees and women held in jails and camps.

IS was defeated in Iraq in 2017. In Syria it lost its last territory in March, marking the end of the extremists’ self-declared caliphate. Despite these battlefield defeats, IS sleeper cells have continued to launch attacks in both Iraq and Syria.

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