In a major policy shift that abandons nearly a decade of American policy in Syria, the White House announced late Sunday night that US forces in northern Syria would step aside to allow a planned Turkish offensive. The decision follows late-night haggling between President Trump and President Erdogan, who had threatened a "land and air" offensive "as soon as today or tomorrow."
In a last-minute phone call yesterday, Erdogan and Trump agreed to meet in Washington next month to discuss Turkey's uneasiness with Washington and its ability to do what is required according to an agreement between the two countries about security in northeastern Syria.
Instead, a few hours later, the Trump administration released the following statement shortly before midnight. The administration reportedly refused to clarify whether the remaining US troops left in Syria would be withdrawn.
Washington said it would also turn over all captured ISIS fighters to Turkey after their home countries refused to take them back.
"Today, President Donald J. Trump spoke with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey by telephone. Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into 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 United States Government has pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused. The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer. Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured ove the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial "Caliphate" by the United States."
As of last month, the US still had 1,000 US troops in northeastern Syria, CNN reports.
Turkey already has substantial military assets positioned along the boarder with Syria, and more troops were seen heading toward the border over the weekend, according to reports in Turkish media.
Unfortunately, Turkey's No. 1 target in the region isn't the remnants of ISIS (which Ankara tacitly enabled by turning a blind eye to foreign soldiers crossing into Syria). Instead, the Turkish operation is intended to destroy the Kurdish militia, the People's Protection Units - or YPG - or at least move them away from the border with Turkey, where Ankara fears they are offering support to domestic Kurdish groups that Erdogan has labeled "terrorists."
This represents a major foreign-policy win for Erdogan. Washington's support for the Kurds as their closest ally on the ground in Syria was the only thing stopping Turkey from moving against the Kurds. Now, Washington has effectively abandoned its long-time ally.
Turkey's primary justification for moving into the region is that Washington hasn't done enough to establish "safe zones" along the Turkey-Syria border. These were intended to be areas jointly patrolled by the US and Turkey. Now, Washington is apparently leaving the project to Ankara.
For a long time, Washington believed that allowing Turkey to attack the Kurds in the region would undermine the battle against ISIS. But now that the caliphate has been stripped of its territorial possessions, the Trump Administration apparently feels like the Kurds have outlived their usefulness.
Never mind that by abandoning the Kurds, Washington is sending a clear message to North Korea, Iran and anyone else hoping to bargain with the US that Washington cannot be trusted to hold up its end of the bargain.
Remember, former Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned late last year over President Trump's plans to pull troops out of Syria (at Erdogan's behest) partly because he felt it would be tantamount to selling out the Kurds.