In a shocking announcement, the White House said on Sunday that U.S. troops would no longer support efforts in northern Syria, and that Turkey would be moving forward with its plans to invade the northeastern portion of the country.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that Turkey would “soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” and that U.S. troops “will not support or be involved in the operation,” and “will no longer be in the immediate area.”
The decision was announced after U.S. President Donald Trump had a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday, according to the statement.
However, the move has garnered considerable backlash from both sides of the political spectrum and from world leaders who say the U.S. has left Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) long allied to Washington vulnerable to attack by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), which brands them as terrorists.
Why has the U.S. pulled its troops and why is Turkey entering northern Syria?
Here’s a look at what’s happening:
Why northern Syria?
Turkey has, for many years sought to move into northern Syria to push back the SDF who currently has a hold on the region. Ankara has cited “security concerns,” claiming the SDF is a terrorist-affiliated group due to its links to Kurdish militants who have waged a long insurgency in Turkey.
Additionally, Turkey wants to drive the Kurds from the border to use the area as a “safe zone” to resettle more than 2 million refugees who have been displaced by the years-long Syrian war.
The SDF has, however, been backed by the U.S. for a number of years, receiving air support and technical and intelligence assistance as it fights the Islamic State.
These competing interests have left the U.S. in a difficult position — between Turkey, which is a NATO ally and trade partner, and the SDF, which has been its most reliable ally in the efforts to defeat the Islamic State in Syria.
In order to ease the tension, the U.S. had been conducting joint patrols with Turkey in Syria, and had pushed back some SDF forces from the border.
However, Turkey has grown more and more impatient, and feeling the financial strain from the growing number of refugees, it has been planning an offensive into northern Syria for some time.
What is Turkey doing?
On Wednesday, Erdogan announced the country would be launching a military operation to eliminate what he called a “terror corridor” on Turkey’s south border.
Shortly after, air strikes and artillery hit Kurdish militia positions around the border town of Ras al Ain.
Turkish howitzers also started hitting bases and ammunition depots of the Kurdish militia. The artillery strikes, which also targeted gun and sniper positions, were aimed at sites far from residential areas, a source told Reuters.
Several large explosions rocked Ras al Ain, just across the border across from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, a CNN Turk reporter said. The sound of planes could he heard above and smoke was rising from buildings in Ras al Ain, he said.
People were fleeing the town, witnesses said.
A day earlier, Turkish officials told Reuters that the military had carried out strikes targeting the Syrian-Iraqi border overnight to prevent Kurdish forces using the route to reinforce northeast Syria, as Ankara prepared for the offensive there.
A security official told Reuters that one of the main goals was to cut off the transit route between Iraq and Syria.
“In this way, the group’s transit to Syria and support lines, including ammunition, are shut off,” the official said
It was not clear what damage was caused or whether there were casualties. Details of the strike were hazy. One official described them as an airstrike, while the other said the site was made “unusable through various means.”
Trump defends decision
In a series of tweets Wednesday, Trump defended his decision, saying entering the Middle East was the “WORST DECISION EVER MADE IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY!”
He continued, saying “the stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!”
Following the initial announcement on Monday, Trump said the U.S. was only “supposed to be in Syria for 30 days,” and that American troops had been there for “many years.”
“We stayed and got deeper and deeper into battle with no aim in sight,” he wrote.
“WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT,” he added. “AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN.”
On Tuesday, Trump pushed back against criticism that America had abandoned the Kurds.
“We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters,” he wrote on Twitter.
He continued, saying the U.S.’s relationship with Turkey as a “NATO and trading partner” is “very good.”
Trump also doubled down on a threat made on Monday, wherein he said he would “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey,” if it did anything he considers to be “off limits.”
He said any “unforced or unnecessary fighting by Turkey” would be “devastating to their economy” and to the country’s “very fragile currency.”
In a statement issued Monday, Jonathan Hoffman, the assistant to the Secretary of Defence, said the Pentagon has “made clear to Turkey” that it does not endorse a Turkish operation in northern Syria.
“The U.S. Armed Forces will not support or be involved in any such operation,” the statement reads.
“In conversations between the Department and the Turkish military, we have consistently stressed that coordination and cooperation were the best path toward security in the area,” Hoffman said in the statement.
However, Turkey’s Vice President Fuat Oktay said Turkey was intent on combating Syrian Kurdish fighters across its border in Syria and to create the “safe zone.”
“Where Turkey’s security is concerned, we determine our own path but we set our own limits,” he said.
Trump is expected to meet with Erdogan at the White House next month.
“He is coming to the U.S. as my guest on November 13th,” Trump wrote in a tweet on Tuesday.
Monday’s announcement — while shocking — is not the first time Trump has said the U.S. would withdraw from Syria.
In December 2018, Trump abruptly announced that he would be pulling all U.S. troops out of the region.
But, after receiving criticism, he walked back his remarks, saying he would leave a small U.S. contingency in the country instead.
This time, however, is different.
On Monday, a U.S. official confirmed that troops had been evacuated from the Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain observation posts.
Following the news, the SDF decried the decision, saying it would have a “huge negative effect” on the war against ISIS.
“The American forces did not abide by their commitments and withdrew their forces along the border with Turkey,” the SDF said in a statement.
The force said that it would not “hesitate for a moment in defending our people” against Turkish troops, adding that it has lost 11,000 fighters in the war against IS in Syria.
Meanwhile, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, appealed to the Kurdish fighters to rejoin the government’s side.
“The homeland welcomes all its sons and Damascus will solve all Syrian problems in a positive way, away from violence,” Mekdad said in an interview with the pro-government daily Al-Watan.
As for the expected Turkish incursion, Al-Watan said that the Syrian government “will defend all Syrian territory and will not accept any occupation of any land or iota of the Syrian soil.”
Iran in a statement of its own urged Turkey not to launch an attack on Syrian Kurds, saying that a Turkish incursion would not address Turkey’s security concerns and would cause “extensive damage and humanitarian problems.”
Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds has also been condemned by both Democrats and Republicans.
Wyoming Rep. and No. 3 House Republican leader Liz Cheney called the move a “catastrophic mistake.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement on Monday saying ISIS and al Qaeda remain “dangerous forces in Syria” and that the ongoing Syrian civil war poses significant “security and humanitarian risks.”
“A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran and the Assad regime,” he wrote. “And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorists groups regroup.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham also slammed the decision, saying it will make it difficult for the U.S. to recruit allies against radical Islam.
In a series of tweets on Wednesday, Graham urged Trump to “change course,” and said he would lead and effort in Congress to make Erdogan “pay a heavy price.”
“Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration,” he wrote. “This move ensures the reemergence of ISIS.”
The former U.S. envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, sent out a tweet on Monday that criticized Trump for making what he called “impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation.”
“He sends military personnel into harm’s way with no backing,” he wrote. “He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.”
He continued, writing that the statement from the White House demonstrates a “complete lack of understanding of anything happening on the ground.”
What will happen next?
According to the White House, Turkey will now also be responsible for all of the ISIS fighters who have been captured in the area over the past two years.
Kurdish forces are currently guarding thousands of ISIS fighters who have been detained. Many are from Europe.
In a statement on Tuesday, France warned that a military operation by Turkey in northeastern Syria could jeopardize the detention of the terrorist fighters.
“The terrorist fighters being held in detention, including those who are foreign nationals, should be prosecuted where they committed their crimes,” the statement reads. “Their prosecution and their secure detention in northeastern Syria are also an essential security measure in order to prevent them from strengthening the ranks of terrorist groups.”
“Any initiative that could jeopardize these goals must be avoided.”
Just last month, U.S. ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism Nathan Sales told ABC News that he had heard “some disturbing reports” at several camps of several attempted prison breaks over the past several months.
In a tweet on Tuesday, the SDF urged Trump and American leaders to “come see what we have accomplished in NE #Syria together.”
“The progress is real, but can be erased by #Turkish invasion that puts everything at risk,” the force wrote.
— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press