The United States said on Sunday it is poised to withdraw some 1,000 troops from northern Syria after learning that Turkey planned to extend a military incursion further south and west than originally planned.
Another consideration in the decision, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper indicated, was that Washington’s Kurdish-led ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), were looking to make a deal with Russia to counter the Turkish offensive.
On the fifth day of Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish militias in northern Syria pursued despite international condemnation, Turkish-led forces appeared to have seized control of the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad, a Reuters witness said.
Turkey also said Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces had seized a highway some 30-35 km (18-22 miles) into Syrian territory, which would sever a major artery linking the Kurdish-run regions of war-torn Syria’s north.
An SDF official said clashes were going on along the road.
Turkey’s offensive aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main component of the SDF and seen by Ankara as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. But the SDF has also been Washington’s key regional ally in dismantling ISIS' so-called “caliphate” in Syria.
Ankara’s stated broader aim is to carve out a “safe zone” inside Syria to resettle many of the 3.6 million Syrian war refugees it is hosting. President Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to send them to Europe if the EU does not back his assault.
But the Turkish incursion has raised international alarm over large-scale displacements of civilians and, amidst the upheaval, the possibility of ISIS militants escaping from prisons run by the Kurdish-led authorities.
Women affiliated with ISIS militants and their children fled en masse from a camp where they were being held in northern Syria on Sunday after shelling by Turkish forces, the region’s Kurdish-led administration said.
Turkey now faces threats of possible sanctions from NATO ally the United States unless it calls off the incursion. Two other NATO allies, Germany and France, have suspended arms exports to Turkey. For its part, the Arab League has denounced the Turkish offensive as an “invasion of Arab land.”
On Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Erdogan in a phone call to bring to an immediate halt the military operation in northern Syria, a German government spokeswoman said.
“The Chancellor advocated an immediate end to the military operation,” the spokeswoman said in a statement, adding that the phone call took place at Erdogan’s request.
Sunday’s word of the planned US troop evacuation came after US President Donald Trump abruptly shifted policy and withdrew a smaller number of US troops deployed to support Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS.
That decision in turn helped open the door for Turkey to launch its offensive against the Kurdish-led SDF.
“In the last 24 hours, we learned that (the Turks) likely intend to extend their attack further south than originally planned, and to the west,” Esper said in a pre-taped interview with CBS.
“We also have learned in the last 24 hours that the...SDF are looking to cut a deal, if you will, with the Syrians and the Russians to counterattack against the Turks in the north.”
Esper called the situation “untenable” for US forces, saying that he spoke with Trump last night, and that the president directed the US military to “begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria”.