U.S. pulls troops from northeast Syria ahead of Turkish attack

The United States began pulling troops from northeast Syria on Monday in a major policy shift, opening the way for a Turkish attack on Kurdish-led forces long allied to Washington and handing Turkey responsibility for thousands of jihadi captives.

The move was denounced as a “stab in the back” by the Kurdish-led forces who have been Washington’s most capable partner in fighting Islamic State in Syria. 

The forces, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), accused Washington of reneging on an ally, warning it would have a “great negative” impact on the war against the militants. 

In a sign of deepening humanitarian concern, a U.N. official reacted to the move by saying civilians must be spared in any Turkish operation in the northeast, adding the United Nations hoped that displacement and atrocities can be prevented.

Erdogan said U.S. troops had started to withdraw from parts of northeast Syria after his call with Trump. He said he planned to visit Washington to meet Trump in the first half of November where they would discuss plans for the “safe zone”. 

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

However the Kremlin, the strongest foreign ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said Syria’s territorial integrity had to be preserved and Moscow continued to seek the withdrawal of all foreign forces illegally present in Syria. 

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

After the statements, Turkey’s lira TRYTOM=D3 was trading weaker at 5.7150 against the U.S. dollar, compared with a close of 5.70 on Friday. The Turkish presidency said that during the call between Erdogan and Trump, Erdogan had expressed his frustration with the failure of U.S. military and security officials to implement the agreement between the two countries on a safe zone. 

The NATO allies agreed in August to establish a zone in northeast Syria along the Turkish border. Turkey says the United States moved too slowly to set up the zone. It has repeatedly warned of starting an offensive on its own into northeast Syria.

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