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Trump Defends Decision to Pull US Troops from Northern Syria

Turkish forces artillery pieces are seen on their new positions near the border with Syria in Sanliurfa province, Turkey. U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces in Syria said American troops began withdrawing Monday from their positions, Oct. 6, 2019.

U.S. President Donald Trump is defending his decision to pull U.S. forces from northern Syria, amid criticism that the move would harm put U.S. ally the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in harm's way and negatively impact the fight against the Islamic State terror group.

"...It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN," Trump tweeted early Monday.

"Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their “neighborhood.” They all hate ISIS, have been enemies for years. We are 7000 miles away and will crush ISIS again if they come anywhere near us!" he said.

The Trump administration announced Turkey "will soon be moving forward" with its plans to carry out an offensive in northern Syria.

"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 said, citing a Sunday phone call between President Trump and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, using an acronym for the group.

Trump on Monday tweeted it was too costly to keep supporting U.S. allied Kurdish-led forces.

"The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so. They have been fighting Turkey for decades," he said.

The SDF said U.S. forces "have withdrawn from border areas with Turkey," and they accused the United States of not fulfilling its responsibilities under a U.S.-Turkey agreement that involved the Kurdish fighters dismantling some of their defensive capabilities near the border to allay Turkish concerns.

"As the Syrian Democratic Forces, we are determined to defend our land at all costs," the group said in a statement. "We call on our Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, and Syriac people to strengthen their unity and stand by the SDF in defense of their land."

Turkey views the People's Protection Units (YPG), the main force within SDF, as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting for greater rights in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast for decades.

But the U.S. makes a distinction between the PKK and YPG, backing the YPG-dominated SDF in the fight against the Islamic State terror group in Syria.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey has supported Syria's territorial integrity since the beginning of the country's conflict, "and will continue to do so."

A spokesman for the SDF said ahead of the U.S. announcement that any Turkish incursion into Syria would throw the entire region into indefinite instability.

"We see these Turkish threats as extremely serious," Mustafa Bali told VOA. "We fear that mass killings would be committed against our people if Turkish forces invaded this part of Syria."

Former special presidential envoy for the anti-IS global coalition, Brett McGurk, said Trump's decision "demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of anything happening on the ground."

McGurk warned a Turkish attack on U.S.-backed Kurdish forces "will increase risks to our people, fracture the SDF, and enable ISIS’s resurgence."

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a staunch Trump supporter, also sharply criticized the decision, telling Fox News it a big win for Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the Islamic State. He also said Islamic State "is not defeated. This is the biggest lie being told by this administration."

Islamic State detainees

The SDF is holding thousands of people in detention camps in northeastern Syria, including many suspected foreign fighters who traveled from Western nations to join Islamic State.

The White House said in its Sunday statement that France, Germany and other European nations have refused to take back their nationals, and that the United States will not be holding them.

"Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years," it said.

U.S. position

U.S. officials had said that any Turkish offensive in Syria would hinder efforts to defeat IS militants.

"Any uncoordinated military operation by Turkey would be of grave concern as it would undermine our shared interest of a secure northeast Syria and the enduring defeat of ISIS," Pentagon spokesperson Commander Sean Robertson told VOA in an email, using another acronym for IS.

Aykan Erdemir, a senior Turkey analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, says Turkey has been trying to exploit the differences of opinion and commitment within the U.S. government concerning the ongoing U.S. military presence in Syria.

"Erdogan has pursued a consistent strategy vis-à-vis northeast Syria in attempting to extract of concessions from the U.S. through frequent threats of unilateral cross-border action," he told VOA.

The United States currently has about 1,000 troops in Syria that have been instrumental in the fight against IS. Trump has ordered a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.

Sirwan Kajjo contributed to this report.