US withdraws troops from Syria

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The United States is pulling troops from north-east Syria, a shift which clears the way for a Turkish military offensive against Kurdish-led forces and hands Turkey responsibility Islamic State captives.

A US official said American troops withdrew from two observation posts on the border at Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain and told the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces the US would not defend the SDF from any Turkish offensive.

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

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

Turkey long argued for establishment of a 32 km “safe zone” along the border, under Turkish control, driving back the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia – the dominant force in the SDF alliance and which Ankara considers a terrorist organisation and a threat to national security.

The United States helped the YPG defeat Islamic State militants in Syria and was seeking a joint ‘security mechanism’ with Turkey along the border to meet Turkey’s security needs without threatening the SDF.

The SDF accused Washington of reneging on an ally which spearheaded the fight against Islamic State in Syria and warned it would have a “negative” impact on the war against the jihadists.

“The American forces did not fulfil their commitments and withdrew forces from the border areas with Turkey.Turkey is now preparing for an invasion operation of northern and eastern Syria,” it said in a statement.

SDF official Mustafa Bali said US forces were “leaving the areas to become a war zone”.

ISLAMIC STATE CAPTIVES

The White House statement appeared to hand Turkey responsibility for captured Islamic State jihadists currently held in SDF facilities south of Turkey’s initially proposed safe zone.

“Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters captured over the past two years,” it said.

The statement made pointed reference to Washington’s European allies, saying many captured ISIS fighters came from those countries, which resisted US 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 spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkey’s “safe zone” plan was in the framework of Syria’s territorial integrity.

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

“Turkey is powerful and determined,” he added.

Turkey wants to settle up to two million Syrian refugees in the zone. It currently hosts 3,6 million Syrians sheltering from the eight-year-old conflict in their homeland.

After the statements, Turkey’s lira TRYTOM=D3 was trading weaker at 5.7150 against the US dollar, compared with a close of 5.70 on Friday. After the Erdogan-Trump phone call, the Turkish presidency said the leaders agreed to meet in Washington next month.

It said Erdogan expressed frustration with the failure of US military and security officials to implement the agreement between the two countries during the call.

The NATO allies agreed in August to establish a zone in north-east Syria along the Turkish border.

Turkey says the United States moved too slowly to set up the zone. It repeatedly warned of launching its own offensive into north-east Syria.

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