Erdogan delays push into Syria, claims role in Trump’s pullback decision

“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,” Erdogan said in his Istanbul speech.
Friday 21/12/2018
A July 2018 file photo shows President Donald Trump talking to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
Limited trust. A July 2018 file photo shows President Donald Trump talking to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

ISTANBUL – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has postponed the expected military intervention into Syria until after the expected US troop withdrawal is complete but says his military will eventually take on Kurdish fighters as well as the Islamic State (ISIS).

During a speech in Istanbul on December 21, Erdogan also claimed a Turkish role in US President Donald Trump’s surprise move.

Media reports had said the US president made the decision to withdraw the 2,000 US soldiers from Syria following a telephone conversation with Erdogan on December 14. Trump’s decision shocked America’s Kurdish allies in Syria as well as the political establishment in Washington  and triggered the resignation of Defence Secretary James Mattis.

“During our telephone conversation with Mr Trump, he asked us: ‘Can you clear out DAESH,’” Erdogan said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “’We have cleared them out before and we will do so in the future,’” Erdogan said, quoting himself in his conversation with Trump. “’It’s sufficient if you give us logistical support,’” Erdogan continued, adding in reference to US troops in Syria: “And did they start to withdraw? They did.”

Erdogan’s account suggested that Turkey, together with its Syrian allies, was willing to take over the central role in fighting ISIS in Syria from US soldiers and Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, seen as a terrorist group by Ankara.

He said Turkish troops and their partners of the Free Syrian Army militia killed 3,000 Islamic State fighters during a Turkish attack on the Syrian border town of Jarablus in 2016.

The Turkish leader spoke after news reports suggested that the threat of a Turkish intervention in an area of Syria where US soldiers are deployed sparked Trump’s shock decision to pull the troops out. The Turkish Hurriyet daily said Trump told his national security adviser, John Bolton, to “start the work” to prepare the withdrawal of troops from Syria while he was still on the phone with Erdogan.

Turkey’s president announced plans last week to start an operation east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria to push the YPG out of the area. This week Erdogan said the campaign could come at any moment. But on December 21, he cited the United States’ move and his phone call with Trump as a reason to wait.

“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,” he said in his Istanbul speech.

Erdogan said the conversation with Trump had led him to “wait a while,” but he added: “This, of course, will not be an open-ended waiting period.” Turkey was determined to fight both against the Kurdish YPG and the Islamic State “in the coming months,” Erdogan said.

Trump’s decision ends US military support for the YPG, which has been a source of friction between the two NATO allies for years. The YPG has served as a ground force for the United Stats in the fight against the Islamic State. Erdogan said these “negative experiences” were the reason that he welcomed Trump’s announcement with “caution.”

The Kurds are seen as the big losers of Trump’s decision, as the move leaves the YPG vulnerable to attack from Turkish military. Two leaders of the political wing of the Kurdish-led force who held talks with French officials in Paris about the US withdrawal said Syrian Kurdish forces could leave the battle against Islamic State and move to the Turkish border in case of an attack by Turkey.