In Depth

US abandons Kurds in Syria: what it means for the Middle East

Trump makes way for Turkish offensive against Kurdish-led forces who played major role in defeating Islamic State

The US military is to withdraw troops from northeast Syria as Turkey prepares to launch a military offensive that Kurdish fighters say will threaten the stability of the region.

 The White House announced the decision on Sunday in a statement that makes no reference to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led militia that helped to defeat Islamic State within Syria. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the [Turkish] operation, and United States forces, having defeated the Isis territorial ‘Caliphate’, will no longer be in the immediate area,” the statement said.

As The Telegraph notes, the US had “for months been working with Turkey to try to create a buffer zone along its border with northern Syria between the Turkish military and Kurdish forces which Ankara sees as terrorists”.

But Turkey has repeatedly criticised the slow implementation of the buffer zone and “threatened a unilateral assault” on the Kurds, the newspaper says.

The US had refused to move aside to allow such military operations by Turkey until now, in a policy shift that Al Jazeera says will see Washington “abandon an American ally in the battle against Isil [Isis], which took over swathes of Syria before being defeated a year ago”.

Responding to the impending withdrawal of the hundreds of US troops in the region, SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali warned that President Donald Trump is “about to ruin the trust and cooperation between the SDF and US built during the fight against Isis”.

“Turkey’s unprovoked attack on our areas will have a negative impact on our fight against Isis and the stability and peace we have created in the region,” said a separate statement from the SDF, which added that its fighters were “determined to defend our land at all costs”.

So what will the US withdrawal mean for the Middle East?

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What is the US doing?

The US has been fighting alongside SDF fighters against Isis militants in Syria since 2015. Despite the White House last year announcing the defeat of the jihadists, the situation in Kurdish Syria remains tense owing to neighbouring Turkey, another key ally for the US.

The Guardian reports that Ankara “sees the SDF as indistinguishable from Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey and views it as a serious security threat”. The two sides have been involved in a number of small skirmishes on the Turkey-Syria border over the past year.

In August, the US and Turkey signed an agreement to create a so-called safe zone near the border, “in recognition of Ankara’s security concerns, that obviated the need for an Turkish incursion”, says the newspaper.

However, the US is now effectively leaving the Kurds to the mercy of Turkey by withdrawing its troops from the safe zone and allowing an Ankara-sanctioned military operation to go ahead.

What will the Turkish operation entail?

Turkey has long threatened military action against the SDF, but has revealed few details of what that would involve. The BBC reports that the “initial indications would point to a limited incursion by Turkey along a 60-mile (100km) stretch between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain”.

“It’s a sparsely populated, mostly Arab area,” the broadcaster says. “American forces have already withdrawn from four border positions there.”

On Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey had “completed our preparations and action plan” and was ready to launch a “ground and air operation” east of the Euphrates River.

CNN reports that Erdogan’s self-described goal is to establish “peace” by clearing the region of “terrorists”.

“It is maybe today or tomorrow the time to clear the way for (our) peace efforts ... We will carry out a ground and air operation,” Erdogan told supporters of his Justice and Development Party at an event in the Turkish capital.

However, Al Jazeera reports that in a separate televised address, Erdogan’s language was considerably less diplomatic. “There is a phrase that we always say: we can come any night without warning,” Erdogan told reporters. “It is absolutely out of the question for us to further tolerate the threats from these terrorist groups.”

The US has also suggested that in return for stepping aside, Washington now expects Turkey to take over the detention of Isis militants captured by the SDF - an issue that The Guardian says has “long been one of Trump’s preoccupations”.

“The US will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer,” the White House statement said. “Turkey will now be responsible for all Isis fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial caliphate by the United States.”

How have the Kurds reacted?

Furiously. Confirming on Monday that US forces had begun to withdraw from border areas, SDF officials accused its former allies of failing to “fulfil their responsibilities”, the BBC reports. 

The group tweeted that the planned Turkish operation was a “mechanism of death” that could turn the area into a zone of “permanent war”.

“The American forces did not fulfill their commitments and withdrew their forces from the border areas with Turkey, and Turkey is now preparing for an invasion operation of northern and eastern Syria,” the SDF said in a separate statement. “The Turkish military operation in northern and eastern Syria will have a huge negative effect on our war against.”

Pointing out that it had lost more than 11,000 fighters in the war against Isis, the SDF added: “We will not hesitate for a moment in defending our people.”

Responding to the escalating row, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, said the international organisation was “preparing for the worst” in northeast Syria.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” he added.

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