WASHINGTON - The Trump administration announced Turkey "will soon be moving forward" with its plans to carry out an offensive in northern Syria, a move the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said will have a "negative impact" on the fight against the Islamic State group.
"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 Donald Trump and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The SDF said U.S. forces "have withdrawn from border areas with Turkey," and it accused the United States of not fulfilling its responsibilities under a U.S.-Turkey agreement that involved the Kurdish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."
"Determined to ensure survivability and security of Turkey by clearing the region from terrorists," he wrote on Twitter. "Will contribute to bringing safety, peace & stability to Syria."
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."
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.
Brett McGurk, former U.S. envoy to the Defeat IS coalition, sharply criticized the White House statement, saying it "demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of anything happening on the ground."
"The 'United States' is not holding any ISIS detainees. They are all being held by the SDF, which Trump just served up to Turkey," he wrote on Twitter.
"Bottom line: Trump tonight after one call with a foreign leader provided a gift to Russia, Iran and ISIS," McGurk said.
U.S. officials say 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 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. U.S. President Donald Trump, however, has ordered a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.
“If the U.S. manages to prevent unilateral Turkish incursion this time around by offering new concessions, it is certain that there will be a repeat of the same process in the not too distant future,” Erdemir added.