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

The Pentagon has attempted to row back on Donald Trump’s green-lighting of a Turkish offensive on Kurdish-held Syria, warning Ankara the US does not support such a "destabilising" move.

President Trump made the decision after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and apparently without consultation from his own advisers or intelligence services, who warned yesterday that it could prove to be one of the most reckless decisions of his presidency.

 "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 in a statement. “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”.

Accounts of the Sunday night phone call between the two leaders suggest Mr Trump had been pressured by his Turkish counterpart.

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 Turkish presidency said that during the call with Mr Trump, Mr Erdogan had expressed his frustration with the failure of US military and security officials to implement the agreement between the two countries on a safe zone.

The Nato allies agreed in August to establish a buffer zone in northeast Syria, which involved moving Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters back from the Turkish border. The YPG had also agreed to allow joint US-Turkey patrols as part of the security mechanism.

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.

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

Mr Trump has attempted to mitigate the fallout, tweeting yesterday that Ankara must watch its step.

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

“If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!),” he wrote in a grandiose tweet.

He also claimed to have 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, MPs lined up in Parliament on Tuesday to condemn Mr Trump's decision, saying that Britain would not stand by as Turkey attacked its allies.

“We are used to being surprised by our enemies. But here we have been surprised by the actions of our most important allies,” said Tom Tugendhat, Conservative MP and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

He has been criticised from all corners, including from Republican allies.

Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, an outspoken defender of the president, said abandonment of the Kurds would be “a disaster in the making”, he said, and “a stain on America’s honour”.

Nikki Haley, his former ambassador at the United Nations, said: “We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back.  The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake.”

However, Turkey said on Tuesday that it is ready at the border for an assault, which Mr Erdogan has been warning could come any day.

Sources in Syria have told the Telegraph the Kurds had been acting in good faith complying with the security mechanism, believing if they did so they would have the US’s continued support.

“We feel as if the whole time Turkey had another plan of its own, that the patrols were only for reconnaissance, and now we have no defences on the border,” one official said.