Turkey to delay Syria operation as ISIS mounts attack

A middle-aged man stands at a podium with the Turkish and Iranian flag behind him.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan speaks during a joint news conference with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani (not seen) after their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Dec. 20, 2018.

Credit:

Umit Bektas/Reuters

Turkey will postpone a military operation against Syrian Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Friday as he "cautiously" welcomed a US decision to withdraw its troops in the area.

The surprise announcement from US President Donald Trump this week that Washington would withdraw its roughly 2,000 troops has felled a pillar of American policy in the Middle East. Critics say Trump's move will make it harder to find a diplomatic solution to Syria's seven-year-old civil war.

For Turkey, the step removes a source of friction with the United States. Erdoğan has long castigated his NATO ally over its support of Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters against ISIS. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and an offshoot of the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), fighting for Kurdish autonomy across the border on Turkish soil.

Related: Kurds have a long list of reasons for seeking independence

NATO allies France and Germany warned that the US change of course risks damaging the fight against ISIS, the jihadists who seized big swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014-15 but have now been squeezed to a sliver of Syrian territory.

The US-backed militia that is spearheaded by the YPG warned on Friday that a Turkish attack would force it to divert fighters from the battle against ISIS to protect its territory. The insurgent group meanwhile launched an attack in Syria's southeast against the US-backed SDF militia, employing car bombs and dozens of militants.

Erdoğan announced plans last week to start an operation east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria to oust the YPG from the area that it largely controls. This week, he said the campaign could come at any moment. But on Friday, he cited Washington's move and a talk with Trump as reasons to wait.

Related: Syrian Kurds left behind as Trump pulls out US troops

"We had decided last week to launch a military incursion ... east of the Euphrates river," he said in a speech in Istanbul. "Our phone call with President Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials and statements by the United States, have led us to wait a little longer.

"We have postponed our military operation against the east of the Euphrates river until we see on the ground the result of America's decision to withdraw from Syria."

The Turkish president said, however, that this was not an "open-ended waiting period."

Turkey has repeatedly voiced frustration over what it says is the slow implementation of a deal with Washington to pull YPG fighters out of Manbij, a town in mainly Arab territory west of the Euphrates in northern Syria.

US air strikes to end

The United States will probably end its air campaign against ISIS in Syria when it pulls out troops, US officials have said. Trump has been forced to defend the planned withdrawal against criticism from allies abroad and at home.

Trump maintained that ISIS had been wiped out, a view not shared by key allies, that Washington had been doing the work of other countries and that it was "time for others to finally fight."

His defense secretary, Jim Mattis, opposed the decision and abruptly announced on Thursday he was resigning after meeting with the president.

In a candid letter to Trump, the retired Marine general emphasized the importance of "showing respect" to allies that have voiced surprise and concern about the president's decision.

Related: Defense chief Mattis resigns after clashing with Trump on policies

Russia said on Friday that it did not understand what the United States' next steps in Syria would be, adding that chaotic and unpredictable decision-making in Washington was creating discomfort in international affairs.

Several of Trump's fellow Republicans in Congress, joined by opposition Democrats, urged the president to reverse course, saying the withdrawal would strengthen the hand of Russia and Iran in Syria and enable a resurgence of ISIS.

Trump has given no sign of changing his mind. He promised to remove forces from Syria during his 2016 election campaign.

The roughly 2,000 US troops in Syria, many of them special forces, were ostensibly helping to combat ISIS but were also seen as a possible bulwark against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has retaken much of the country from his foes in the civil war, with military help from Iran and Russia.

Related: Syrian activist Raed Fares wanted 'a free Syria for all Syrians.' It may have cost him his life.

ISIS declared a caliphate in 2014 after seizing parts of Syria and Iraq. The ultra-hardline militants established their de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.

A senior US official last week said ISIS was down to the last 1 percent of the territory it once held. The group has no remaining territory in Iraq, though militants have resumed insurgent attacks since the group's defeat there last year.

ISIS launched an attack on Friday on positions held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria's southeast and the US-led coalition mounted air strikes in the area, an SDF official said.

Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria may not be able to continue to hold ISIS prisoners if the situation in the region gets out of control after a US pullout, top Syrian Kurdish official Ilham Ahmed said on Friday.

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