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US will not stop Turkish attack in northern Syria

What happened: The White House said it will not prevent a Turkish military campaign in northern Syria and will pull troops from the area, signalling its abandonment of long-term Kurdish allies.

  • On Sunday evening, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said US troops: “Will not support or be involved in the operation” and “will no longer be in the immediate area” where they were deployed and operating with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against ISIS. President Trump spoke with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by telephone shortly before the statement.
  • Turkey wants to remove the Kurdish presence along its border with Syria and has slowly been dispatching units and equipment to the border in anticipation of a major military operation. On Saturday, President Erdogan said: “We have given all kinds of warnings regarding the (area) east of the Euphrates to the relevant parties. We have acted with enough patience.”
  • On Monday, the SDF said that the US has begun withdrawing their forces from the border areas despite SDF efforts to co-operate with the US and ease tensions. The SDF added: “We in the SDF will not hesitate for a moment to defend ourselves and call upon our people of all sects, Arabs, Kurds and Syriacs, Assyrians to join forces and stand with their legitimate forces to defend our country against this Turkish aggression.”

Context: Turkey has been threatening a military offensive against the SDF, who they believe is aligned with the PKK, a banned terrorist organisation that has conducted an insurgency against Turkey for 35 years.

  • The US and Turkey had agreed to establish a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria by the end of September but both sides failed to agree on the details. President Tayyip Erdogan told the UN General Assembly in late September that he wanted to set up the zone across 480km of the border area, reaching 30km inside Syria. Under the Turkish plan, up to 2 million Syrian refugees would be settled in the safe zone, with international support.
  • In December 2018, President Trump announced he was withdrawing US troops from Syria, which prompted the resignation of then-Defence Secretary Jim Mattis. The US later decided to gradually withdraw troops from Syria so as not to abandon its Kurdish allies.
  • The White House said on Sunday that Turkey will take custody of 2,500 highly dangerous ISIS foreign fighters from Europe and elsewhere, captured in the US-led campaign against ISIS who have been held by the SDF and whose native countries have been reluctant to take them back.

Looking ahead: The US has decided that it would rather avoid a military confrontation with a NATO ally than support its Kurdish allies in Syria. Yet, it is unclear whether the US will completely withdraw its approximately 1,000 personnel from northern Syria. A Turkish attack will likely lead to a large scale conflict with the SDF resulting in thousands of casualties and displaced Syrians civilians.