Kurdish forces in Syria fear Turkey will launch attacks rapidly to take advantage of 'confusion' caused by Trump's US troop withdrawal plan

Mitch Prothero
turkey syria

REUTERS/Murad Sezer

  • Turkey wasted no time in moving troops to key points on its border with Syria Tuesday, in an apparent attempt to mitigate any u-turn from the White House over the US withdrawal of troops from the country.
  • Trump shocked observers on Sunday by announcing a plan to remove US troops working with the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) from northern Syria.
  • Turkey has long been planning an assault on Kurdish forces in the region, and the US plan to withdraw its troops is likely to speed that process up, sources with the SDF told Business Insider.
  • A contractor working with the SDF told Business Insider: "It feels like they're coming faster than they planned in order to take advantage of the political confusion in the West."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. 

Officials working with Kurdish forces in Syria fear that the Turkish military is set to launch an operation to push into the north of the country imminently, looking to take advantage of political confusion caused by President Donald Trump's unexpected withdrawal of US troops from the region.

"The news hit us hard and fast," a military contractor working for the SDF headquarters in the region told Business Insider, speaking anonymously because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

The contractor said that uncertainty caused by Trump's Sunday announcement that the US would withdraw the troops it has stationed in northern Syria is likely to lead to Turkish aggression in the short term, designed to take advantage of that uncertainty.

"It feels like they're coming faster than they planned in order to take advantage of the political confusion in the West," they said.

"Trump gave a green light without thinking about what it meant and now there will be a push back, for the Turks it becomes an issue of how many facts they can establish on the ground before Trump and NATO attempt to rein them in."

Read more: Trump's abrupt decision to pull out of Syria was reportedly made 'instinctively' at the end of his call with Turkey's president

President Donald Trump faces an unheard of revolt from within his own party and administration over his tacit acceptance of a Turkish military operation that would confront the SDF, a predominantly Kurdish separatist group, despite past promises by the US to shield the group from the Turkish military.

The SDF has served as a critical anti-ISIS coalition ground force, and has lost around 10,000 men during the fight.

On Monday, top Republican allies of the president, as well as senior military officials, scrambled to react to the president's surprising acceptance during a phone call Sunday of Turkish military action against the SDF.

Many promised to repeat a Senate resolution passed last January with a veto-proof vote that would bar the US from any immediate abandonment of their long time anti-ISIS partners.

Read more: Lindsey Graham says Congress will call for Turkey to be suspended from NATO and hit it with sanctions if it attacks Kurds

That possible resolution, the contractor who spoke to Business Insider said, is one of the reasons Turkey is likely to act quickly to launch its long-awaited operation in northern Syria.

"The Turks see the Senate preparing a veto-proof resolution to prevent a Kurdish betrayal and they see officers on the ground arguing for the US to remain in place as much as possible, as well as their determination to prevent them from using the air space over Rojava [the Kurdish name for northern Syria]," the contractor said.

Turkey appears to be preparing to launch its assault as soon as is possible

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stand in formation at a ceremony to mark their defeat of Islamic State militants in Baghouz, at al-Omar Oil Field base, Syria, Saturday, March 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Associated Press

There are already clear signs that Turkey was moving troops in preparation for an operation in northerneastern Syria, with witnesses reporting to Business Insider that there is already a heavy Turkish military buildup along key crossings on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Military sources with the SDF in the Syrian border city of Kobani told Business Insider that while the Turkish military appears to have accelerated the deployment of troops along the border in that hotly contested area, an actual military attack had yet to materialize on the ground.

They said, however, that Turkish warplanes had struck multiple targets along the border with Syria as well as at the Iraqi mountain stronghold of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has close military ties with the SDF.

Read more: Here are the 5 major players that will feel the impact from Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria

"They appear to be rushing faster to prepare something for us," an SDF official who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to speak to the press told Business Insider.

"We hope the Americans reconsider or set strict limits to what Turkey will be allowed to do but we fear the Turks will act before the Americans do this.

"Nobody knows what the US policy is right now."

The US has yet to fully withdraw its troops from Syria, with only around 150 of the estimated 1,000 US troops currently operating in Syria being moved out of the country, adding further uncertainty to the mix.

Military officials Monday announced that the US would not cede control of the airspace to Turkey over the roughly one-third of Syria currently controlled by the SDF, a sign that perhaps the US military is prepared to limit the damage to its coalition partners by refusing to let Turkey's air force support any advance by ground forces.

Trump's aggressive tweet threatening to destroy the Turkish economy will likely make matters even worse

President Donald Trump speaks at the Young Black Leadership Summit 2019 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. Kearyn Bolin, back left, of Texas State University listens. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Associated Press

The coalition contractor said that Trump's bizarre tweet Monday — in which he threatened to destroy the Turkey's economy if it overstepped in its offensive — was likely to aggravate to situation and possibly push Turkey to act even quicker to take control of key areas.

Read more: Trump threatens to 'totally destroy and obliterate' Turkey's economy if it takes 'off-limits' actions in Syria

Aron Lund, an analyst on Turkish affairs for The Century Foundation think tank wrote in an analysis that the lack of clarity about what the US would do in Syria is aggravating the situation as multiple groups lack the information they need to make critical decisions.

"It is still unclear exactly what Trump has agreed to," said Lund.

"U.S. government rhetoric is so muddled at the moment that no one can quite figure out whether the White House has just begun a total pullout, or is merely taking a tactical step back to let Turkey have its way with a small part of Syria."

Turkey says it will ignore international pushback over possible Syria operation

FILE PHOTO: Turkey President Recep Tayip Erdogan attends the South East European Cooperation Process (SEECP) summit in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 9, 2019. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo


Turkey's vice president warned Washington that it would ignore any pushback on what many fear is the beginning of a military operation that will target key Kurdish partners in the fight against ISIS.

Read more: Former national security adviser Susan Rice called Trump's decision to pull US forces out of Syria 'bats--- crazy'

"Turkey sets its own way when it comes to Turkey's national security as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed," Vice President Fuat Oktay said during a political event in the capital Ankara.

On Monday, Turkey had promised to develop a security zone along the border to both push Kurdish fighters away from Turkey and build space inside Syria where Turkey hopes to resettle some of the millions of Syrian refugees they currently host.

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