ISTANBUL, PARIS, BERLIN: Turkey will postpone a military operation against Syrian Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday as he “cautiously” welcomed a US decision to withdraw its troops in the area.
“We had decided last week to launch a military incursion… east of the Euphrates river,” he said in a speech in Istanbul. “Our phone call with President Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials and statements by the United States, have led us to wait a little longer.
“We have postponed our military operation against the east of the Euphrates River until we see on the ground the result of America’s decision to withdraw from Syria.” The Turkish president said, however, that this was not an “open-ended waiting period.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusgolu earlier welcomed the US decision to withdraw its troops from Syria, and said Washington should coordinate with Ankara on the pull-out.
US President Donald Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw its 2,000 troops has upended a pillar of American policy in the Middle East. Critics say it will make it harder to find a diplomatic solution to Syria’s seven-year-old civil war.
Trump made the shock decision during a phone call with his Turkish counterpart who said Turkey could clear the remaining militants from the country, media reported.
But for Turkey, Trump’s abrupt move marks a removal of a major source of friction with the US. The two NATO allies have long been at odds over Syria, where Washington has backed Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization.
“With regards to the withdrawal, the decision of the United States to withdraw from Syria, we welcome that decision and Turkey fully supports the territory integrity of (Syria),” Cavusoglu told reporters in Malta, during an official visit.
“We need to coordinate this withdrawal with the United States and we are already in touch at different levels.”
Erdogan said this week Turkey might start a new military operation in Syria at any moment. Its forces have intervened to sweep YPG and Daesh militants from territory west of the Euphrates over the past two years. It has not gone east of the river, partly to avoid direct confrontation with US forces.
Turkey has repeatedly voiced frustration over what it says is the slow implementation of a deal with Washington to pull YPG fighters out of Manbij, a town in mainly Arab territory west of the Euphrates.
“We have the Manbij road map, we discussed whether we can implement this by the time that they (US forces) withdraw,” Cavusoglu said, referring to the Manbij deal.
“So many issues that Turkey and the United States should coordinate (on) and there shouldn’t be any vacuum in the country that terrorist groups might also fill.”
Syrian Kurdish forces leading the battle against Daesh remnants in Syria could withdraw from the frontlines and redeploy to the Turkish border if the region they control is attacked by Turkey, one of their leaders said on Friday in Paris.
Two leaders of the political wing of the Kurdish-led force, who held talks with French officials about the planned US military withdrawal from Syria, also said they feared the escape of some 1,000 militants being held in Syrian Kurdish jails should guards be drafted to fight elsewhere.
Ilham Ahmad, one of two co-chairs of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), warned that a Turkish attack could bring the battle against Daesh in Syria to a halt.
“We will continue our mission but confronting this terrorism will be difficult because our forces will be forced to withdraw from the frontlines in Deir Ezzor to take up positions on the border with Turkey to counter any attack we may face,” she said.
Syrian Kurdish forces could “lose control” over detained foreign militants if Daesh used the US pullout to regroup, or if Turkey pushed ahead with its threatened offensive against the Kurds’ region of Rojava, she warned.
Hundreds of foreign Daesh militants are being held in Syrian Kurdish prisons. Asked if the Kurds would go as far as releasing them, Riad Darar, the council’s other co-chair, said: “Of course not. But we fear that the chaos will not allow us to protect the premises where they are located.”
The international coalition fighting Daesh in Syria “has a job to finish” despite Trump’s “very serious” decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, the French defense minister said on Friday.
“The decision taken by the US president changes things pretty radically,” Florence Parly told RTL radio.
“We consider that the job must be finished,” she said, adding that failing to do so could mean Daesh might regroup.
Parly also suggested that implementing the withdrawal of 2,000 US soldiers from Syria should be discussed among the allied coalition, adding that “you can’t withdraw troops from one day to another.”
France has aircraft in the region, along with long-range artillery in position along the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Washington says France has also deployed special forces inside Syria, though France has never acknowledged this.
The German government says it wasn’t consulted by Washington before the US announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. Government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told reporters in Berlin on Friday that Berlin would have appreciated prior consultations.
Demmer said the US decision could affect the dynamics of the conflict, adding that “much remains to be done” for a final victory over Daesh. She said the US is an “important ally” but declined to say whether Germany considers it a “reliable” one, too.
German Defense Ministry spokesman Jens Flosdorff said the decision has no immediate impact on Germany’s aerial surveillance missions over Syria.
The Netherlands, joining other US allies, voiced disquiet on Friday at the US decision and said Washington’s plan to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan was premature given continuing conflict there.
Thursday’s announcement by Trump surprised the Dutch, who contribute to military missions in Syria and Afghanistan, Defense Minister Ank Bijleveld told journalists in The Hague.
The Netherlands supports the fight against Daesh militants with F-16 jets. The Dutch are set to end their participation in that operation, which falls under US military command, on Dec. 31.
Bijleveld said an end to the US military presence in Syria would have “far-reaching consequences for the region and security.” Daesh has “not yet been completely defeated and the threat is not gone,” she said, a position at odds with Trump’s assessment.
The Dutch were also surprised by the announcement of Washington’s plans to significantly draw down its forces in Afghanistan, she said.
Bijleveld said it would be premature to scale back forces in Afghanistan, where the Netherlands has 100 troops in a NATO-led mission — known as Resolute Support — supporting Afghan Army and police forces.
“We are intensifying efforts in Afghanistan because the security situation is not improving quickly enough,” she said.