The United States confirmed late on Sunday that Turkey will launch an operation in northern Syria to establish a “safe zone” east of the Euphrates River, a move that has been denounced by the US-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces.
“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” the White House Press Secretary said in a statement after a telephone call between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“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,” it added.
It was not clear whether that meant the US would be withdrawing its 1,000 or so troops completely from northern Syria.
The United States informed the commander of the SDF on Monday morning that US forces will not defend them from Turkish attacks anywhere, a US official told Reuters.
The official said US forces had evacuated two observation posts at Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain in northeast Syria, along the Turkish border. The other US forces in the region were still in position for now, the official said.
The SDF said on Monday US forces have withdrawn from the northeast after failing to meet commitments and it will have a "great negative" impact on its war against ISIS.
"The American forces did not fulfill their commitments and withdrew their forces from the border areas with Turkey, and Turkey is now preparing for an invasion operation of northern and eastern Syria," the SDF said in a statement.
The Turkish presidency said Erdogan and Trump had agreed to meet in Washington next month, following an invitation by the US president.
On Saturday, Erdogan said a military incursion into northeastern Syria was imminent, after Ankara accused Washington of stalling efforts to establish a safe zone there together.
During the phone call, Erdogan expressed his frustration with the failure of US military and security officials to implement the agreement between the two countries, the Turkish presidency said.
Erdogan also reiterated the necessity of the safe zone to eliminate the threats from the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers a terrorist organization, and to create the conditions necessary for the return of Syrian refugees, it said. Ankara says the zone should be cleared of the YPG.
Erdogan's spokesman said on Monday the planned safe zone aims to clear terrorist elements from the border and return refugees safely to Syria within the framework of Syrian territorial integrity.
Turkey is determined to clear its border with Syria of militants and assure the security of the country, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.
"Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, we supported the country's territorial integrity, and we will continue to do so from now on," Cavusoglu said. "We will contribute to peace and stability in Syria," he said in a tweet.
The statement from the White House also said “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years”, as France, Germany and other European nations that they had come from had refused US requests to take them back.
Ambassador James Jeffrey, the State Department envoy to the international coalition fighting ISIS, and Trump have said there are about 2,500 foreign fighters captured in the fight against the terrorist group.
Washington and Ankara agreed in August to establish a zone in northeast Syria along the border with Turkey.
Turkey says it wants to settle up to 2 million Syrian refugees in the zone. It currently hosts 3.6 million Syrians sheltering from Syria’s more than eight-year conflict.
Turkey says the United States, which supports the SDF, a YPG-led force that defeated ISIS in Syria, is moving too slowly to set up the zone. It has repeatedly warned of launching an offensive on its own into northeast Syria, where US forces are stationed alongside the SDF.
The two countries are also at odds over how far the zone should extend into Syria and who should control it. Turkey says it should be 30 km (19 miles) deep.
The ties between the allies have also been pressured over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 defense missiles and the trial of local US consulate employees in Turkey.
In December, Trump announced he was withdrawing American troops from Syria but was met with widespread condemnation for abandoning Kurdish allies to the Turkish assault. The announcement prompted the resignation in protest of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and a coordinated effort by then-national security adviser John Bolton to try to protect the Kurds.