Trump defends decision to pull U.S. troops back from Syrian-Turkish border

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday defended his administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, saying it was too costly to keep supporting U.S-allied Kurdish-led forces in the region fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so. They have been fighting Turkey for decades,” Trump said in a series of tweets.

“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out.”

Trump said it’s now up to the region to decide what to do with captured ISIS fighters currently held in Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) facilities to the south of Turkey’s initially proposed safe zone.

The White House announced late Sunday the major shift in policy, which clears the way for a Turkish military offensive against Kurdish-led forces and hands Turkey responsibility for thousands of ISIS captives.

The United Nations hopes civilian displacement and atrocities can be prevented in the region, a senior UN official said Monday.

Turkish and American soldiers stand near a former YPG military point during a joint U.S.-Turkey patrol, near Tel Abyad, Syria, on Sept. 8. Representatives of the Turkish Kurds say they feel betrayed by the decision from the White House. (Rodi Said/Reuters)

Panos Moumtzis, UN regional humanitarian co-ordinator for the Syria crisis, speaking hours later, told reporters in Geneva that had drawn up contingency plans to provide aid.

“We are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.”

A U.S. official said American troops had withdrawn from two observation posts on the border, at Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain, and had told the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that the United States would not defend the SDF from an imminent Turkish offensive.

“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” the White House said after Trump spoke to Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday.

‘Disaster in the making’: Republican Graham

“The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area,” it added in a statement.

Turkey has long argued for the establishment of a roughly 30-kilometre “safe zone” along the border, under Turkish control, driving back the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia — the dominant force in the SDF alliance that Ankara considers a terrorist organization and a threat to its national security.

The United States helped the YPG defeat ISIS 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 SDF accused Washington on Monday of reneging on an ally which spearheaded the fight against Islamic State in Syria, and warned that it would have a “great negative” impact on the war against the jihadists.

Abdulkarim Omar, who acts as foreign minister for the Syrian Kurds, said Monday the U.S. troop withdrawal from the border will have “catastrophic consequences” because Kurdish-led forces would be preoccupied with defending the border, instead of protecting detention facilities or the crowded al-Hol camp, which houses over 73,000 people, many of them ISIS families and supporters.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, was also displeased with the White House statement.

“If press reports are accurate, this is a disaster in the making,” said Graham, who outlined some of the potential consequences of the action and promised Senate action to try to reverse the decision.

The White House statement made pointed reference to European allies, saying many of the captured ISIS fighters came from those countries, which had resisted U.S. calls to take them back.

“The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer,” the White House said.

In the first Turkish comment following the statement, Erdogan’s spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said Turkey’s “safe zone” plan was within the framework of Syria’s territorial integrity.

“The safe zone has two aims: to secure our borders by clearing away terrorist elements and to achieve the return of refugees in a safe way,” Kalin wrote on Twitter.

“Turkey is powerful and determined,” he added.

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

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, shown, and U.S. President Donald Trump spoke on the weekend, and are set to meet in Washington next month. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Erdogan’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said Monday that Turkey would provide services to the areas it takes from the YPG militia.

Turkey’s two previous operations into Syria showed it can deliver a governance model and security for all Syrians, said Altun. He said Ankara’s primary goal was to combat militants and prevent the resurgence of ISIS.

After the Erdogan-Trump phone call, the Turkish presidency said the two leaders had agreed to meet in Washington next month.

It said that during the call Erdogan had expressed his frustration with the failure of U.S. military and security officials to implement the agreement between the two countries.

The NATO allies agreed in August to establish a zone in northeast Syria along the border with Turkey.

Turkey says the United States moved too slowly to set up the zone and repeatedly warned of launching an offensive on its own into northeast Syria.

Ties between the allies have also been pressured over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 defence missiles and the trial of local U.S. consulate employees in Turkey.

It is not the first time Trump has announced a decision publicly concerning the region that has clashed with the opinions of top military and diplomatic officials.

Defence Secretary James Mattis last December announced his resignation, in part, over Trump’s announcement that he would soon pull all of the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, as did Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to Syria.

McGurk offered scathing criticism in several tweets after the latest White House announcement.

“The [White House] statement tonight on Syria after Trump spoke with Erdogan demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of anything happening on the ground,” said McGurk. “The ‘United States’ is not holding any ISIS detainees. They are all being held by the SDF, which Trump just served up to Turkey.”