The UN yesterday said it was “preparing for the worst” in northeast Syria after the US said it would step aside to allow for Turkish military operations in the area.
“We don’t know what is going to happen ... we are preparing for the worst,” UN regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria Panos Moumtzis said in Geneva, stressing that there were “a lot of unanswered questions” about the consequences of the operation.
The UN was “in contact with all sides” on the ground, Moumtzis added.
However, he made clear his office did not have advance warning about the US decision that effectively abandons the Kurds, who were Washington’s main ally in the long battle against the Islamic State group.
Moumtzis said the UN’s priorities were to ensure that any prospective Turkish offensive not result in new displacements, that humanitarian access remain unhindered and that no restrictions be put in place on freedom of movement.
The UN has a contingency plan to address additional civilian suffering, but “hopes that will not be used,” Moumtzis said.
Turkey has sent reinforcements to the border in recent weeks, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday said the long-threatened offensive could “come any night without warning.”
His comments came after Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Twitter that Ankara was “determined to ensure our country’s existence and security by clearing terrorists from this region.”
He was referring to the Kurdish-led and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have ties to Kurdish militants inside Turkey and which Ankara considers a terrorist organization.
Kurdish forces have spearheaded the campaign against the Islamic State in the region, but the policy swerve, after a telephone conversation on Sunday between US President Donald Trump and Erdoan, means Turkey would take custody of captured Islamic State fighters, the White House said.
It said US troops in northern Syria would no longer be “in the immediate area” near the border with Turkey, nor would they support Ankara’s operations.
US forces in northern Syria yesterday started pulling back from areas along the Turkish border.
The SDF said in a statement that the US pullback would reverse years of successful Kurdish-led operations to defeat the Islamic State and allow some of its surviving leaders to come out of hiding.
The group also warned that a Turkish invasion would pose a threat to SDF-run prisons and informal settlements housing thousands of Islamic State members and their families.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bal, accused the US of leaving the area to “turn into a war zone,” adding that the SDF would “defend northeast Syria at all costs.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor confirmed that US forces had pulled back from key positions in Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad.
The Turkish military has twice launched offensives in Syria — against the Islamic State in 2016, and last year against the People’s Protection Units, the backbone of the SDF.
Additional reporting by the Guardian
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