US says Turkey to begin NE Syria operation

Turkish military vehicles Image copyright AFP
Image caption The US will not be involved in the operation, the White House said

The US says it is stepping aside for an imminent Turkish operation against Kurdish-led forces within Syria that have until now been a key US ally.

Kurdish militias played a major role in defeating the Islamic State (IS) group, but Turkey regards them as terrorists.

The US – which has hundreds of troops near the Turkey-Syria border – has reportedly begun to withdraw them.

The main Kurdish-led force has condemned the pullout and accused the US of abandoning its fighters.

In January, President Trump threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if it attacked Kurdish forces.

However, a White House statement issued on Sunday makes no reference to the Kurdish fighters of the YPG.

The statement followed a phone call between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

What did the White House say?

“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria,” the statement said.

“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.”

The White House also said that Turkey would take over all responsibility for IS fighters captured by Kurdish forces over the past two years.

Tens of thousands of former IS fighters, their wives and children are held in Kurdish-run camps in Syria.

Image copyright AFP

Image caption Kurds in north-eastern Syria have been protesting against Mr Erdogan’s plan to set up a “safe-zone” there

“The United States government has pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back but they did not want them and refused.

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

What is Turkey’s plan?

Late on Sunday, Mr Erdogan’s office said that he and President Trump had spoken on the phone about Turkey’s plan to set up a “safe zone” in north-eastern Syria.

It said the move was needed to combat “terrorists” and create “the conditions necessary for the return of Syrian refugees to their native country”.

Image copyright EPA

Image caption President Erdogan showed a map of the proposed zone at the UN General Assembly last month

Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million Syrians who fled the civil war that began in 2011. It wants to move up to two million of the refugees from its territory into the zone.

In his call with Mr Trump, President Erdogan also expressed his “frustration over the US military and security bureaucracy’s failure” to implement an agreement reached in August about the zone, his office said.

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Media captionA young face destroyed by war: The impact of an air strike one year on

On Saturday, he warned that Turkish forces could launch a cross-border offensive in the coming days.

He has not given any details about the scale of the planned offensive.

How have the Kurds reacted?

On Monday the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – who occupy former IS territory in the north-east of Syria – said US forces had begun to withdraw from border areas, accusing them of US failing to “fulfil their responsibilities”.

An SDF spokesman said the group was “determined to defend NE Syria at all costs”.

In a separate tweet, the group called the planned Turkish operation a “mechanism of death” that could turn the area into a some of “permanent war”.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, also said US forces had pulled back from key positions.

Kurdish TV in northern Iraq said the SDF had put some of its units on alert because the Turkish army had mobilised troops on the border on Monday.

What’s the background?

The YPG was a major part of the SDF, the US-supported force that defeated IS in Syria.

Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades.

The YPG denies any direct organisational links to the PKK.

Turkey has previously condemned the US for supporting the YPG.

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