Turkey said it had completed preparations for a military operation in northeast Syria, a day after the White House announcement regarding U.S. troops’ withdrawal from the area, while U.S. President Donald Trump threatened Turkish economy.
A statement was released by the Turkish Defense Ministry early on Oct. 8, as military vehicles were seen heading towards the border with Syria.
“All preparations for the operation have been completed. The TSK will never tolerate the establishment of a terror corridor on our borders,” read the statement, using an abbreviation for the Turkish Armed Forces.
“It is essential to establish a safe zone/peace corridor to contribute to our region’s peace and stability, and for Syrians to achieve a safe life,” it said, referring to the “safe zone” that Turkey has been keen on establishing in the area.
While the U.S. statement paved the way for Turkey to carry out its long-sought military operation against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Trump took to Twitter to make another comment on the issue, this time with a threat against its NATO ally.
“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, 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!)” Trump tweeted on Oct. 7.
His tweet appeared aimed at placating critics who accused him of abandoning the SDF that had long been allied to Washington. The decision drew criticism from Democrats and a rebuke from some of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Trump’s threat draws rebuke in Turkey
His remarks met an angry response in Turkey, with the country’s Vice President Fuat Oktay saying that Turkey is not a country that acts in accordance with the threats.
“Turkey sets its own way when it comes to Turkey’s national security as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stressed,” Oktay said on Oct. 8, adding, “Turkey will never tolerate the creation of a terror corridor or a terror state at its border under no circumstances, regardless of its costs.”
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, however, criticized the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdoğan for “not being able to respond” to Trump.
“The economy was surrendered to money lenders and loan sharks. They borrowed 420 billion dollars in 17 years. This is the reason why Trump can speak and threaten so comfortably,” Kılıçdaroğlu said in his party’s parliamentary group meeting on Oct. 8, adding that “no power can threaten” Turkey.
Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Deputy Head Semih Yalçın, meanwhile, called Trump “tactless.”
“Mister Trump, if you dare take a step that targets the Turkish economy, you will never be able to set foot in the Middle East again,” Yalçın said in a series of tweets.
Another opposition party to criticize Trump’s statements was the İYİ Party, with its leader Meral Akşener saying it was a day to put aside domestic politics.
“Threatening Turkey’s economy is a diplomatic catastrophe,” she told her party’s lawmakers in a speech in parliament on Oct. 8, adding that today “there is only one party and that is our red [Turkish] flag.”
“The best response to this insolence is to go into the east of the Euphrates and break the terror corridor,” she also said.
İYİ Party Ankara Deputy Durmuş Yılmaz took his anger towards Trump to Twitter, as he called the U.S. President a “despicable creature.”
“It’s saddening to see our country being subjected to threats by such a despicable creature,” Yılmaz said on Oct. 8.
Trump defends Washington’s relationship with Ankara
Meanwhile, hours after threatening Turkey’s economy, Trump sent another series of tweets concerning the country, this time defending Washington’s relationship with Ankara upon a bipartisan backlash against his decision to withdraw U.S. troops.
“So many people conveniently forget that Turkey is a big trading partner of the United States,” Trump wrote in posts on Twitter on Oct. 8, adding, “They have also been good to deal with … Also remember, and importantly, that Turkey is an important member in good standing of NATO.”
Trump insisted Washington was not abandoning the Kurdish-led forces, writing on Twitter: “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 understands that while we only had 50 soldiers remaining in that section of Syria, and they have been removed, any unforced or unnecessary fighting by Turkey will be devastating to their economy and to their very fragile currency. We are helping the Kurds financially/weapons!” he also said.
According to U.S. Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, Trump consulted with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley “over the last several days” about a possible Turkish strike in Syria.
“Unfortunately, Turkey has chosen to act unilaterally. As a result we have moved the U.S. forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety. We have made no changes to our force presence in Syria at this time,” Hoffman said in a statement on Oct. 8.
Similarly, a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters that Esper and Milley partook in the phone call between Trump and Erdoğan that took place on Oct. 6.
On Oct. 8, the date of the meeting between Trump and Erdoğan was announced as Nov. 13.
In a series of tweets, Trump said that Erdoğan would visit him as his “guest.”
Kurds eye possible talks with Damascus
Elsewhere, the SDF has said that they may launch talks with Damascus or Moscow to fill a security vacuum in the event of a full U.S. withdrawal.
“If America vacates the area and especially the border area for sure, we, as a self administration and as the SDF, will be forced to assess all available options,” Badran Jia Kurd told Reuters on Oct. 8.
“At that time we may hold talks with Damascus or the Russian side to fill the void or block the Turkish attack, so this may develop and there could be meetings and contacts in the case of a vacuum,” he said.
The SDF found itself in a similar position in late 2018 when President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. The SDF held talks in Damascus that broke down without progress.
‘Our forces are in state of readiness’
Meanwhile, U.S. forces evacuated two observation posts at Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain on Oct. 7, a U.S. official said, Reuters reported.
Turkey has been mulling an operation in northern Syria for months in order for the establishment of a “safe zone” along its border, to facilitate the conditions necessary for the return of Syrian refugees and to drive back militants of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the dominant force in the SDF, citing threats against its national security.
Turkey deems the YPG as the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is accepted as a terrorist organization by Ankara, the U.S. and the European Union.
Turkey has already launched two military incursions in Syria’s northwest and Turkish officials say those operations showed it can restore services and infrastructure to areas devastated by war.
The Kurdish-led forces have denounced the major shift in U.S. policy as a “stab in the back.”
Mustafa Bali, a SDF official, said the continued Turkish military buildup on the border, together with information about the further mobilization of Turkey-backed Syrian rebels, indicated that “an attack was imminent and soon expected.”
“Naturally our preparations are along the length of the border with Turkey and our forces are in a state of readiness,” Bali told Reuters.
Iran opposes military operation
Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest foreign ally, meanwhile, said it was not told in advance by the U.S. or Turkey about any agreements they had about plans to pull out U.S. troops.
“We are very closely watching the situation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists in Moscow on Oct. 8.
Later in the day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the situation in northeast Syria with his Turkish counterpart by phone, the Russian Foreign Ministry said
According to the statement that released no details of the conversation on northeast Syria, the two ministers agreed to maintain a close dialogue.
Iran, another Assad ally, voiced opposition to any Turkish military operation in Syria.
“Such an action will not only not end Turkey’s security concerns but will lead to widespread material and human damage,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry said.
France, UK highlight differences with US
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe also commented on the issue, saying that the country’s priority remained to defeat ISIS and preserve Kurdish-led forces fighting the militant group.
Responding in parliament to criticism of the French government from some opposition lawmakers for not publicly defending Kurdish forces in the face of a possible Turkish offensive, Philippe said Paris had not wavered on its policy, unlike Washington.
“The fight against Daesh is not over and continues alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces,” Phillipe told lawmakers on Oct. 8, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“Saying things with consistency and coherence is preferable to reacting to obvious hesitations from certain players, notably our American friends,” Philippe said, alluding to differences withinn the U.S. administration.
Another U.S. ally to raise caution regarding Turkey’s planned operation was Britain, with Foreign Office Minister Andrew Murrison warning Turkey against taking unilateral military action in Syria.
“We have been consistently clear with Turkey that unilateral military action must be avoided as it would destabilise the region and threaten efforts to secure the lasting defeat of Daesh,” Murrison said on Oct. 8.
Murrison also distanced the government from Trump’s earlier assertion that Britain was thrilled at his decision to withdraw troops.
Murrison said he had “no idea” where that comment came from and that it certainly was not based on the contents of a call between British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Oct. 7.
EU concerned about a refugee influx
Elsewhere, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer voiced concerns regarding the resuming of the chaotic influx of migrants that caught the European Union unprepared in 2015, as Greece and Cyprus sounded the alarm over a resurgence of arrivals from neighboring Turkey.
EU ministers met to discuss migration on Oct. 8 as Greece has again become the main gateway to Europe for people fleeing wars and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, with U.N. data showing nearly 45,600 arrivals by sea so far this year.
“If we leave all the countries on the EU’s external border [to fend for themselves], there will never be a common European asylum policy,” Seehofer said.
“And if there is no common European asylum policy, there is a danger that uncontrolled immigration will once again take place, throughout Europe. We have seen this before and I do not want it to happen again,” he told reporters in Luxembourg.