US President Donald Trump has warned Turkey against going too far in Syria, just a day after giving Ankara an apparent green light to invade its southern neighbor and sparking panic among Washington’s Kurdish allies.
The US pulled back 50 to 100 “special operators” from Syria’s northern frontier, where they have served as a buffer preventing a long-planned assault by the Turkish military against Kurdish forces in Syria.
In a day of foreign policy turmoil, Trump’s surprise announcement on Monday drew heavy criticism from top Republican lawmakers that he was abandoning the Kurds, who were crucial in the years-long campaign to defeat the Islamic State movement.
Trump appeared to then backpedal, warning Turkey he would “obliterate” the country’s economy if it went too far — without explaining what that meant.
“I have told Turkey that if they do anything outside of what we would think is humane ... they could suffer the wrath of an extremely decimated economy,” he said.
Ankara brushed aside the threat, with Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay saying: “Turkey is not a country that will act according to threats.”
Iran, a key backer of the Syrian government, yesterday said that it was opposed any military action by Turkey.
In a call to Ankara, Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif “urged respect for Syria’s territorial integrity.”
Turkey has always pushed hard against Washington’s support for Kurdish forces in Syria, fearing it would strengthen Kurdish separatists in its own territory.
The Turkish Ministry of Defense yesterday tweeted that preparations for an offensive in northern Syria have been “completed.”
Meanwhile, a senior US official denied Trump had given a “green light” to a Turkish invasion, which has also raised concerns over the fate of thousands of Islamic State prisoners held in Kurdish detention centers.
“It appears the Turks are intent on some sort of military operation,” the official said on condition of anonymity, adding: “There will be no US armed forces involvement.”
Trump emphasized he wanted to end the US military presence in the region.
“We want to bring our troops back home from these endless wars and we’re like a police force. We’re not fighting. We’re policing,” he said.
However, even Trump’s allies accused him of turning his back on the Kurds, who lead the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and say they lost some 11,000 fighters as the main frontline force against the Islamic State group.
“A precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime,” said Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, one of the senior Republicans who criticized Trump.
“And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup,” he said.
Trump’s announcement appeared to have caught many US officials by surprise, and they spent Monday seeking to discourage Ankara from acting.
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman warned Turkey of destabilizing blowback to the region if it invades.
“The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey — as did the president — that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in northern Syria,” he said.
Ankara says it wants to establish a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border where it could send back some of the 3.6 million refugees from the eight-year civil war.
Kurds argue that Ankara’s goal is to dilute their dominance in the region with an influx of mostly Sunni Arab refugees now living in southwestern Turkey.
A Turkish attack raised the specter of about 10,000 Islamic State fighters held by the SDF being let loose if SDF soldiers have to battle Turkish troops.
If they escape or are released, they could reconstitute the Islamic State, less than one year after it was defeated and its “caliphate” disintegrated.
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