Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that his country would hold off on a military operation against the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria, citing a telephone conversation this past week with U.S. President Donald Trump.
"Our phone call with Mr. Trump, as well as the contacts of our diplomatic and security units, and the statements from the American side have led us to wait a little longer," Erdogan said during an awards ceremony in Istanbul.
"Of course, this is not an open waiting period," he said, underlining his country's intention to carry out an assault in "the coming months" on the Kurdish fighters, known as the People's Protection Units (YPG), who played a key role in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.
The Turkish military launched an operation against the YPG in January and took over the Kurdish town of Afrin in northwestern Syria. The military last week threatened another incursion against YPG, this time vowing to eliminate the fighters from all of northeastern Syria, where about 2,000 U.S. special forces have operated, helping in the fight against IS and serving as a buffer in Turkish-Kurdish clashes.
The recent Turkish threats have forced many civilians to evacuate their homes on both sides of the border to avoid being targeted.
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The United States and Turkey have for years been at odds over Syria, where Washington depended on YPG as the main element of local Syrian Democratic Forces to retake large swaths of territory from IS, including the jihadi group's self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa.
Turkey claims the YPG is the Syrian wing of the Turkey-based separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and European Union.
Western allies, however, distinguish between YPG and PKK.
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Erdogan, during a speech Friday at the Turkish Exporters Assembly, said U.S.-Turkish differences over Syria were nearing a solution, particularly after Trump on Wednesday announced plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria.
"These problems, especially during the [former President Barack] Obama era, were left to Trump as a bad legacy, which would have wasted time in a new arrangement. I have personally seen Mr. Trump and think the same in many points on the Syrian issue, and we have shared the same convictions in our last phone call," he said, adding Ankara welcomed Washington's "promising" remarks with caution "because of our bad experiences in the past."
"Mr. Trump asked us, 'Would you clean IS from there?' " Erdogan said, referring to his conversation with Trump on the IS threat in Syria.
" 'We have cleaned it up before and we can clean it now, as long as you give us the necessary logistical support,' and then they [U.S. troops] started to withdraw," Erdogan added.
Trump said he had decided to pull U.S. troops from Syria because IS had been defeated there.
"We have won against ISIS. We have beaten them and we have beaten them badly," Trump said Wednesday in a video post on Twitter. "We have taken back the land and now it's time for our troops to come back home."
The next day, Trump said Russia, Iran and Syria were unhappy about the U.S. move "because now they will have to fight ISIS and others." If IS hits the U.S., Trump tweeted, "they are doomed!"
But Kurdish officials have argued otherwise, warning IS remnants still pose a significant threat in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border, where they still control some pockets.
A report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) estimated IS might still have 20,000 to 30,000 militants in Iraq and Syria, mostly operating underground.
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Mustafa Bali, the spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in a tweet Friday said heavy clashes erupted after IS fighters conducted a "huge" counterattack in Abu Khater village in eastern Syria's Hajin region.
He said the U.S.-led coalition provided airstrikes in support of the Kurdish fighters, who control only 35 percent of the region.
from Hajin :ISIS is launching huge attack, heavy clashes are taking place there.only 35% percent from Hajin is liberated by our forces.we think that ISIS will keep launching attacks in the future.everybody should be aware that #ISIS is still strong pic.twitter.com/kGDZCXA5RG— Mustafa Bali (@mustefa2bali) December 21, 2018
The Syrian Kurds, who are disappointed by the withdrawal, consider the U.S. decision a stab in the back.
Kurdish officials say they are seeking alternatives, including gaining European assurance and even an agreement with the Syrian government, to prevent a potential attack from Turkey in their northern region and on IS remnants in the south of the country.
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Some experts warn that while IS has lost over 95 percent of the territory it once held, a sudden withdrawal could embolden the militants to regroup and re-establish themselves.
"This withdrawal will mean the SDF are forced to fall back into a defensive posture, both against IS and against Turkey," said Max Hoffman, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning public policy research group in Washington.
"IS will have time and space to reconstitute itself, and will almost surely make a comeback over the next few years," he added.
Hoffman warned the decision would most likely also affect other U.S strategic objectives in the Middle East, such as containing Iran and its allied Shiite militias.
William Wechsler, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council, a global affairs think tank in Washington, said that besides Iran, the Syrian regime and their allies, the U.S. decision was also a major win for Turkey and its influence in the region.
"The Syrian Kurds, who bore a disproportionate burden in the battle against the Islamic State, will feel abandoned and indeed betrayed by the U.S. This is therefore undeniably a big win for Turkey. It is likely not a coincidence that just yesterday the Trump administration announced it would reverse another policy and now sell the Patriot missile defense system to Turkey," Wechsler told VOA.
The U.S. State Department on Tuesday announced approval of the sale of a $3.5 billion Patriot missile system to Turkey.
Naim Baburoglu, a former Turkish military officer, said the U.S. withdrawal would make it more practical for the Turkish army to launch future military actions in northern Syria.
"If Turkey goes into Syria for an operation, there won't be risk of clashing with U.S. soldiers," Baburoglu told VOA. "This is a positive solution for Turkey, because it would be more free to do an operation and neutralize PKK/PYD much more easily."
VOA's Kurdish and Turkish services contributed to this report.