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US starts withdrawing troops from northeast Syria, clearing way for Turkish offensive

Delil Souleiman, AFP | Syrian Kurds gather around a US armoured vehicle during a demonstration against Turkish threats next to a US-led international coalition base on the outskirts of Ras al-Ain town in Hasakeh province, Syria, on October 6, 2019.

The United States said it was pulling troops from northeast Syria, in a major shift which clears the way for a Turkish military offensive against Kurdish-led forces and hands Turkey responsibility for thousands of Islamic State group captives.

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The US withdrew troops from two observation posts on the border, at Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain, and informed the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that the United States would not defend the SDF from an imminent Turkish offensive, a US official said Monday.

The withdrawal followed a phone conversation Sunday between US President Donald Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The White House readout of the call, which was released late Sunday, said Ankara would "soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria".

“The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial “Caliphate”, will no longer be in the immediate area,” it added in a statement, using another acronym for the Islamic State (IS) group.

Turkey has long argued for the establishment of a 20-mile (32-km) “safe zone” along the border, under Turkish control, driving back the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia - which is the dominant force in the SDF alliance and which Ankara considers a terrorist organisation and a threat to its national security.

The United States helped the YPG defeat Islamic State militants in Syria, and had been seeking a joint ‘security mechanism’ with Turkey along the border to meet Turkey’s security needs without threatening the SDF.

The SDF accused Washington on Monday of reneging on an ally which spearheaded the fight against Islamic State in Syria, and warned that it would have a “great negative” impact on the war against the jihadists.

“The American forces did not fulfill their commitments and withdrew their forces from the border areas with Turkey, and Turkey is now preparing for an invasion operation of northern and eastern Syria,” it said in a statement.

SDF official Mustafa Bali said US forces were “leaving the areas to turn into a war zone”.

Kurds have to 'figure it out'

France on Monday urged Turkey to "avoid any initiative" that could harm the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria.

"We call on Turkey to avoid any initiative that would run counter to the interests of the global coalition" fighting IS in Syria, the French foreign ministry said in a statement.

The ministry also insisted that captured European jihadists in Syria's northeast remain in "safe detention".

Amid mounting criticism over the US “abandonment” of its Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State group, Trump on Monday defended his decision in a series of Twitter posts.

"The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so. They have been fighting Turkey for decades," Trump said in a series of tweets.

"Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out," Trump said.

IS group captives

The White House statement appeared to hand over to Turkey responsibility for captured Islamic State group jihadists who are currently held in SDF facilities to the south of Turkey’s initially proposed safe zone.

“Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years,” it said.

The statement also made pointed reference to Washington’s European allies, saying many of the captured IS fighters came from those countries, which had resisted U.S. calls to take them back.

“The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer,” the White House said.

In the first Turkish comment following the statement, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkey’s “safe zone” plan was within the framework of Syria’s territorial integrity.

“The safe zone has two aims: to secure our borders by clearing away terrorist elements and to achieve the return of refugees in a safe way,” Kalin wrote on Twitter.

“Turkey is powerful and determined,” he added.

Turkey says it wants to settle up to 2 million Syrian refugees in the zone. It currently hosts 3.6 million Syrians sheltering from the more than eight-year-old conflict in their homeland.

After the statements, Turkey’s lira was trading weaker at 5.7150 against the U.S. dollar, compared with a close of 5.70 on Friday.

After the Erdogan-Trump phone call, the Turkish presidency said the two leaders had agreed to meet in Washington next month.

It said that during the call Erdogan had expressed his frustration with the failure of U.S. military and security officials to implement the agreement between the two countries.

The NATO allies agreed in August to establish a zone in northeast Syria along the border with Turkey.

Turkey says the United States moved too slowly to set up the zone. It has repeatedly warned of launching an offensive on its own into northeast Syria.

Ties between the allies have also been pressured over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 defence missiles and the trial of local U.S. consulate employees in Turkey.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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