âIt is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN,â he tweeted.
The withdrawal followed a late Sunday statement by the White House that the United States would not intervene in a long-threatened Turkish offensive into northern Syria. The announcement, which signaled an abrupt end to a months-long American effort to broker peace between two important allies, came after a call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.Â
Erdogan said in a speech Monday that the withdrawal began soon after their phone call.
A U.S. official confirmed to The Washington Post that American troopsÂ left observation posts in the border villages of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn at 6:30 a.m. local time.
Pentagon chief says a solo incursion by Turkey into Syria is âunacceptable,â but doesnât pledge to stop it
The fast-moving developments threatened a fresh military conflagration in a large swath of northern Syria, stretching from east of the Euphrates River to the border with Iraq. Syrian Kurds had established an autonomous zone in the area during more than eight years of Syriaâs civil war.
Ankara, however, has been increasingly unnerved by the Kurdish presence, and by the close ties between U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters and the Kurdistan Workersâ Party, or PKK, a militant group that has fought a long insurgency against the Turkish state.
For months, Erdogan has been threatening an imminent invasion, as Trump administration officials attempted to work out an accommodation that would satisfy Turkish demands for border security while providing a measure of protection for the U.S.-allied Syrian-Kurdish force.
But on Sunday, the United States appeared to throw up its hands. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said the Turkish leader would âsoon be moving forwardâ with dispatching troops to battle the Kurdish forces, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. Ankara views the group as a terrorist-linked entity, butÂ the SDF has fought closelyÂ alongside the U.S. military as a primary partner against the Islamic State.Â
âThe United States armed forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial âcaliphate,â will no longer be in the immediate area,â Grisham said in a statement. ISIS is another name for the Islamic State, the militant group whose rise drew the U.S. military into Syria.Â
The SDF, in a statement critical of the United States, said the American troopsÂ haveÂ begun pulling out.
âThe United States forces have not fulfilled their obligations and withdrew their forces from the border area with Turkey,â the statement said. âThis Turkish military operation in north and east Syria will have a big negative impact on our war against Daesh and will destroy all stability that was reached in the last few years.âÂ Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
It added that the group reserves the right to defend itself against Turkish aggression.
Erdogan, who has portrayed a Turkish incursion as necessary to protect his countryâs borders, has spoken in recent weeks of resettling millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey in a âsafe zoneâ in northern Syria, a plan that has been criticized by refugee advocates as well as local Syrian Kurds who could be displaced by such a proposal.
On Saturday, Erdogan said the invasion, dubbed Operation Peace Fountain, could begin âas soon as today or maybe tomorrow.â
U.S. officials depicted the impending offensive, and the U.S. troop withdrawal, as a dramatic turn after their prolonged attempt to hammer out an arrangement that would allay the Turksâ concerns about Syrian Kurdish forces close to their border, while also averting a battle they fear will be bloody for Kurdish fighters whom the Pentagon sees as stalwart allies.Â
Military officials point out that Kurdish assistance is still required to avoid a return of the Islamic State in Syria and to guard facilities where Islamic State militants and their families are being held.Â
Â A senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an evolving situation, said the U.S. governmentÂ âhas no ideaâ what the Turkish operation would look like, whether it would be a small, symbolic incursion or a major offensive intended to pushÂ as far as 25 miles into Syria.Â
The White House announcement comes only two days after the Pentagon completed its most recent joint patrol with Turkish forces, a central element of the U.S. effort to build trust in northern Syria. ButÂ similar patrols and other measures overseen from a joint U.S.-Turkish military hub in southern Turkey have not reduced Ankaraâs impatience to establish the buffer zone it has envisioned.Â
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper described ongoing U.S.-Turkish cooperation in northern Syria, saying that his Turkish counterpart had agreed in a call last weekÂ âthat we need to make the security mechanism work.â
In negotiations, the United States had said it would agree to a strip along the border to be cleared of Syrian Kurdish fighters and jointly patrolled by the United States and Turkey on the ground and in the air. That strip is about five miles wide, only about a quarter of what the Turks have demanded.
Syria camp is at risk of falling under ISIS control, Kurdish general says
The joint patrols are taking place in only about a third of the border length, with the idea of gradually expanding them. In addition to not liking U.S. terms for the agreement, Erdogan believes the United States is dragging its feet in implementing it.
âMr. Trump gave the order; he ordered to pull out. But this came late,â Erdogan told reporters in Ankara on Monday. âWe cannot accept the threats of terrorist organizations.â
Erdoganâs plan to send up to 3 million Syrian refugees into the 140-mile-long stripÂ also runs counter to what the United States says was part of the agreement they had reached to allow only the 700,000 to 800,000 refugees who originally fled the area to resettle there. Turkey currently hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, but the government has recently begun deporting hundreds back to Syria as public sentiment turns against the migrants.
Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Erdogan, wrote on Twitter that Turkey has no interest in occupying or changing the demographics in northeastern Syria and that theÂ âsafe zoneâ would serveÂ two purposes: secure Turkeyâs borders and allow refugees to return home.
After months of warning about the turmoil such a move couldÂ create, U.S. officials said they are now watching Turkeyâs actions closely to inform their own decisions about how quickly they must move the hundreds of troops expected to be affected.Â
âWe’reÂ going to get out of the way,â another U.S. official said.Â
There are about 1,000 U.S. troops in northeastern Syria.Â
The SDF also predicted that Islamic State fighters would break out of prison camps the SDF manages in different areas of Syria.
The potential for greater risk to Islamic State prisons and camps comes after months of unsuccessful efforts by the Trump administration toÂ persuade countries in Europe and elsewhere to repatriate their citizens.
The White House statement said thatÂ âTurkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fightersâ in that area.Â âThe United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer,â Grisham said.Â
Erdogan saidÂ Monday that Turkey has âan approach to this issueâ of ISIS, without specifying what it was.
The United Nations is also concerned about the impact that any Turkish operation would have on the protection of civilians in northeastern Syria, Panos Moumtzis, U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said in a telephone interview.
âWe wante our message to all governments and actors on the ground to be to make sure that this latest development does not have an impact first of all on a new displacement of people,â he said.
TheÂ United Nations already provides services to approximately 700,000 people every month in the northeast. Moumtzis emphasized the importance of freedom of movement of civilians and ensuring the continuation of access to humanitarian groups. He stressed that any movement of Syrians must be done voluntarily and with safety and dignity.
âWe have not had any specific instructions onâÂ the safe zone, he said, adding that theÂ United Nations has a contingency plan depending on how wide and deep the safe zone would be.
The planned offensive comes amid already heightened U.S. tensions with its NATO ally Turkey, over Ankaraâs plans to operate a sophisticated Russian air defense system.Â
Fahim reported from Istanbul. Sarah Dadouch and Asser Khatab in Beirut and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.
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