Pentagon tries to row back Trump green light of 'destabilising' Turkish assault on Syria

Josie Ensor
Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters gather near the Syrian-Turkish border north of Aleppo - AFP

Hours after coming off the phone with President Recep Tayyip Erodgan on Sunday night, President Donald Trump declared he was green-lighting Turkey’s long-threatened invasion of northern Syria.

It was a prime example of the on-the-hoof diplomacy he has come to be known for after a similar call with Mr Erdogan ended with him announcing on Twitter the withdrawal of US troops from the war-torn country back in December.

Some observers have since joked that fellow populist strongman Mr Erdogan must have a bewitching effect on Mr Trump.

The Turkish leader has for months been trying to sell the idea of a proposed “safe zone” along the southern border, most recently with an appeal to the UN General Assembly. He had hoped to collar the US president for a one-on-one on the subject after, but Mr Trump reportedly could not make time in his busy schedule.

By Sunday’s call, Mr Erdogan was seething. He expressed in it his frustration with the failure of US military and security officials to implement the agreement between the two countries on the buffer zone.

 

A female fighter of the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) flashes the victory gesture while celebrating after announcing the total elimination of the Islamic State in Syria Credit: AFP

The Nato allies agreed in August to establish the zone, which involved moving Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters Ankara considers terrorists back from the Turkish frontier.

Mr Erdogan told Mr Trump that the US moved too slowly to set up the zone, expressing his anger that the US security bureaucracy, namely the Pentagon, was seemingly stalling the zone's full implementation.

It may have goaded Mr Trump, who notoriously does not like to be thought of as being hamstrung by policymakers.

The announcement came as a shock, not only to the US’s Kurdish allies but to US servicemen themselves. 

"We're departing the field," the message sent to the some 1,000 American troops in Syria on Monday morning read. 

The 50-odd troops that had just days earlier been carrying out joint patrols with their Turkish counterparts along the border, quickly and quietly withdrew from their forward position.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, holds up a map of his proposed "safe zone" while speaking during the UN General Assembly meeting in New York Credit: Bloomberg

The Pentagon attempted to row back on Mr Trump’s decision, sending out their own counter-statement warning Ankara the US does not support such a “destablising” move.

"The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey - as did the President - that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria,” Jonathan Hoffan, Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, said. “The US Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation.

“We will work with our other Nato allies and Coalition partners to reiterate to Turkey the possible destabilising consequences of potential actions to Turkey, the region, and beyond."

A state department official went further, saying it was a “very bad idea”.

The White House, meanwhile, was briefing that it was not a withdrawal of troops as presented, but simply a “restructuring”.

Mr Trump spent much of Tuesday attempting to mitigate the considerable fallout, tweeting: “We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters. 

“Likewise our relationship with Turkey, a NATO and Trading partner, has been very good. Turkey already has a large Kurdish population and fully.”

He said he would rein Ankara in from a threatened full-on assault, warning he could cripple its economy if Mr Erdogan went too far.

He also claimed to have acted with the support of his coalition allies, saying the UK was among those parties who agreed with the policy shift.

“A lot of people have their opinion. I could name many who are extremely thrilled that we’re coming home ,” he said at the White House.

“The UK is very thrilled at this decision. As you know, they have soldiers over there also. And others. But many people agree with it very strongly. I understand both sides of it very well.”

However, this appeared to be news to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office, which said they were “deeply concerned” by developments.

Senior Tories lined up in Parliament on Tuesday to condemn Mr Trump's decision, saying that Britain would not stand by as Turkey attacked its allies.

Tobias Ellwood, a former defence minister, condemned the US move saying it went against official and congressional advice, and would leave Kurdish-led forces defenseless.

Tom Tugendhat, Conservative chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: "Here we've found ourselves surprised by the actions of our most important ally and our allies on the ground surprised at the possibility they may find their homes under very serious threat from one of our other more important military allies in Turkey.

"Will the minister please assure me that our other allies in the region are being assured that the UK will not make a pattern of being fair-weather friends but will actually commit to our allies seriously and properly?"

Mr Trump said he had invited Mr Erdogan to the White House next month. It remained to be seen whether the US president could be prove more persuasive on home turf.