President Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria may be causing consternation in Washington and among many of America’s international partners, but there is at least one NATO ally celebrating the abrupt announcement: Turkey.
“We welcome the decision,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a news conference Friday, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency.
For years, the matter of how to handle the conflict in Syria has driven a wedge between the two longtime allies, particularly in regard to a group known as the the YPG. The U.S. has armed and supported the rebel Syrian Kurdish militia as a key partner in the fight against the Islamic State — a move that galled Turkey, which considers the YPG a terrorist group working with Kurdish separatists that operate within its own borders.
Earlier this year, Turkey launched an offensive to rid Syria’s northern borderlands of Kurdish fighters. Within months, the Turkish military had expelled the YPG from the Syrian city of Afrin, despite objections from some in the West.
And Turkey was planning to launch another offensive imminently, even vowing, in the words of Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, that Syrian Kurdish fighters would soon be “buried in the trenches that they dig.”
But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Trump’s decision has caused Turkey to reconsider the timing of its operation.
“We had decided last week to launch a military incursion in the east of the Euphrates River,” Erdogan said in Istanbul, according to Reuters. “Our phone call with President Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials and statements by the United States, have led us to wait a little longer.”
They would prefer to hold off “until we see on the ground the result of America’s decision to withdraw from Syria,” he explained, clarifying that delaying the operation should not be confused with its outright cancellation.
“Of course,” Erdogan said, “this is not an open-ended waiting process.”
It is precisely this kind of offensive that has deeply worried many of those critical of Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria — including U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who abruptly announced his resignation Thursday in protest.
“What Turkey is going to do is unleash holy hell on the Kurds,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday on the Senate floor after the announcement. “In the eyes of Turkey, they’re more of a threat than ISIS. So this decision is a disaster.”
As NPR’s Peter Kenyon reports, there is growing concern that if the YPG is forced to defend itself against a full Turkish onslaught, the Kurdish group will divert its attention from ISIS, giving the beleaguered Islamist militants a chance at a comeback.
The Kurds of the YPG have “talked about maybe even releasing thousands of ISIS prisoners so they can use the men guarding them to help with the fight against Turkey, if that’s what’s going to come,” Kenyon explains, noting that one YPG spokesman disputes this possibility.
“The general concern — Britain, France and elsewhere in NATO — is that this U.S. troop withdrawal could lead ISIS to regroup and have a resurgence. It’s lost most of its territory, but it has many supporters still lying low in both Syria and Iraq.”
For Turkey — as well as its increasingly close partners, Iran and Russia — the U.S. move allows more freedom to pursue their aims in a land ravaged by war. And unlike the U.S., they have no plans to withdraw anytime soon.
“We don’t have our eyes on anyone’s land. Yet, our stance regarding any attack to originate from Syria is clear. We can make no concession on security,” Erdogan said Friday. “The ongoing incidents in Syria, both in their security and humanitarian respects, are of direct concern to our country.”