The United States has given Turkey the green light for the latter’s expected northern Syria operation and handed Turkey responsibility for thousands of ISIS captives. Yet the details of the operation remain unclear.
The White House on Oct. 7 announced that the U.S. Armed Forces won’t “support or be involved” in Turkey’s operation.
“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” the statement read, adding that the U.S. forces have defeated the ISIS territorial “Caliphate” and will no longer be in the immediate area.
Since January, U.S. officials have sought to broker the establishment of a “safe zone” in northern Syria in order to provide a security buffer between the Turkish military and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). But Turkey has repeatedly protested its slow implementation.
In August, the NATO allies agreed to carve out a zone in northeast Syria along the border with Turkey.
Turkey now responsible for ISIS captives
In its statement, the White House said that Turkey will be responsible for all the ISIS militants that were captured over the past two years and are currently held by the SDF.
“Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial ‘Caliphate’ by the United States,” it read.
“The United States Government has pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused. The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and a great cost to the United States taxpayer,” it added.
While the exact number of ISIS prisoners remains unknown, it is estimated that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 militants held by the SDF.
Commenting on the issue, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the number of ISIS prisoners was overblown, adding he was currently working on a plan to deal with the militants.
“As you know, there are ISIS militants in the area from various countries, including France and Germany. They’re saying, ‘We want to get rid of the control of these ISIS militants. We can’t take care of them any longer. It’s enough.’ They will work to deal with the issue and we have instructed our friends to do the same,” he said.
Recent media reports showed ISIS prisoners in a facility set up by the SDF.
‘An operation is imminent‘
Speaking in the Turkish capital Ankara ahead of his trip to Serbia on Oct. 7, Erdoğan noted that the U.S. troops have started to withdraw from the area following his phone call with the U.S. President Donald Trump late on Oct. 6.
“As you know, this is nothing new. It has an extensive past. President Trump has previously given the orders regarding the withdrawal, but it was delayed,” he said, while also pointing out that Turkish and U.S. delegations will continue to be in contact with the same “determination.”
Answering journalists’ questions, Erdoğan said the operation, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, is “imminent.”
“We have already made our decision. We’ve been saying, ‘We can come any night without warning’ and our determination still holds. We absolutely cannot accept threats by terrorist groups against our country any longer,” he added.
How deep will the ‘safe zone’ be?
Turkey has been mulling an operation in northern Syria aimed at engineering a “safe zone” along its border for months. Such a plan is said 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 regards the YPG as the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), deemed a terrorist organization by Ankara, the U.S. and the European Union.
The depth of the “safe zone,” however, remains unknown, as the statement released by the White House refrained from specifying. Turkey has long argued for the establishment of a 20-mile (32 km) “safe zone” along the border.
Meeting set for November
The White House statement came after Erdoğan and Trump discussed Turkey’s plans for the area east of the Euphrates River in Syria in a phone call.
Erdoğan expressed Turkey’s unease with U.S. military and security bureaucracies not carrying the actions required by the agreement between the two countries, a statement from the Turkish Presidency said, adding that the two men had agreed to meet in Washington next month upon Trump’s invitation.
Asked whether the date of the aforementioned meeting was finalized, the Turkish President said that it will most probably take place in the first half of November in Washington.
He said the two leaders would discuss plans for the “safe zone,” the developments in the region and added that he hoped to resolve a dispute over F-35 fighter jets during his visit.
Ties between the two NATO allies have been strained over several issues, including Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 defence missiles and the trial of local U.S. consulate employees in Turkey.
Trump: Ridiculous endless wars
On Oct. 7, Trump also defended his administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria.
“The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so. They have been fighting Turkey for decades. I held off this fight for almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN,” Trump said in a series of tweets.
“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure out the situation, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their “neighborhood.” They all hate ISIS, have been enemies for years. We are 7000 miles away and will crush ISIS again if they come anywhere near us!” he added.
Trump has repeatedly demanded that European countries, particularly France and Germany, take back their citizens who joined the jihadist group.
European nations have so far resisted U.S. calls to take back ISIS captives who come from their country.
Trump slammed by own allies
The Trump administration’s move runs counter to the positions of some of the president’s top allies within his own party.
Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator who is generally a vocal Trump supporter, wrote in a series of Twitter posts that he was trying to set up a call with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and would introduce a Senate resolution opposing the withdrawal decision and calling for it to be reversed.
“It’s never in our national security interest to abandon an ally who’s helped us fight ISIS,” Graham said in an interview with Fox News Channel, Reuters reported.
“This impulsive decision by the president has undone all the gains we’ve made, thrown the region into further chaos,” he said.
SDF to ‘defend itself’
Earlier on Oct. 7, the SDF said that the U.S. troops have started to pull out from the areas along Turkey’s border with Syria.
Accusing Washington of reneging on an ally, the SDF said that it “will not hesitate for a single moment” to defend itself from an expected Turkish invasion.
The SDF was the U.S.’ main ally in the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS and it controls much of the northeast region along Turkey’s border.
The Turkish military operation “will have a great negative impact on our war against the Daesh organisation and will destroy everything that has been achieved with regards to stability during the last years,” it added, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“Despite our efforts to avoid any military escalation with Turkey and the flexibility we have shown to move forward in establishing a mechanism for the security of the border, the American forces did not fulfill their commitments and withdrew their forces from the border areas with Turkey,” the group also said.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said U.S. forces were “leaving the areas to turn into a war zone.”
Turkey to wait for U.S. troop withdrawal
Also on Oct. 7, a senior Turkish official told Reuters that Turkey is highly likely to wait until U.S. soldiers have withdrawn from the area where Ankara plans to carry out a military operation before launching an offensive.
He said the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the planned area of operations could take one week and that Ankara was highly likely to wait for this in order to avoid “any accident.”
Commenting on the U.S. troops’ pullback, a U.S. official told Reuters that it will initially be limited in scope to a patch of Syrian territory near the Turkish border where both countries had been working to establish a special security area.
The official noted that the pullback from the zone would not involve many forces — perhaps just dozens. The official did not say whether the troops would leave the country or relocate elsewhere in Syria, where the U.S. has around 1,000 forces.
Turkish authorities emphasize ‘fight against terrorism’
Statements from the Turkish officials regarding the planned military operation poured after the White House announcement, with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu saying that Ankara is determined to clear the border region of “terrorists” and assure the security of the country.
“Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, we supported the country’s territorial integrity, and we will continue to do so from now on,” Çavuşoğlu said, adding that Turkey will “contribute to peace and stability in Syria.”
Another statement was made by Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın, who said that the planned “safe zone” aims to clear “terrorist elements” from the border and return refugees safely to Syria “within the framework of Syrian territorial integrity.”
“Turkey is powerful and determined,” he added.
Erdoğan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun also commented on the military operation, saying that Turkey will provide services to the areas it takes from the YPG.
In a tweet, Altun said that Turkey’s two previous operations into Syria demonstrated it can deliver a governance model and security for all Syrians. He added that Ankara’s primary goal was to combat militants and prevent the resurgence of ISIS.
France calls on Turkey to act in line with anti-ISIS coalition
Also on Oct. 7, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated that Syria’s territorial integrity must be preserved.
Peskov told reporters that Moscow was aware that Turkey shared Russia’s position on Syria’s territorial integrity.
“We hope that our Turkish colleagues would stick to this position in all situations,” he said, while repeating Moscow’s stance that all foreign military forces “with illegal presence” should leave Syria.
Another country to comment on the issue was France, which called on Turkey to avoid any actions that could go against the interests of the anti-ISIS coalition.
The French Foreign ministry also said in a statement that militants detained in northeast Syria, including foreigners, should be tried where their crimes were committed.
On the same day, Iran’s foreign minister said the U.S. was an “irrelevant occupier in Syria,” and called for respecting Syrian territorial integrity.
“U.S. is an irrelevant occupier in Syria — futile to seek its permission or rely on it for security,” Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted.
“Achieving peace & fighting terror in Syria will only succeed thru respect for its territorial integrity & its people.”
‘Bitter history with safe zones’
The United Nations, meanwhile, called for the prevention of mass displacement or killings during the military operation.
“Any (military) operation that takes place at the moment has to take into account to ensure that we don’t see any further displacement,” said Panos Moumtzis, U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis.
“We are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” he added.
The United Nations currently delivers aid to 700,000 people in the densely-populated northeast region of 1.7 million.
It has drawn up contingency plans to reach people who might flee south with food and medical aid, Moumtzis said.
“For us as the United Nations, the safe zone concept is one that we have a bitter history (with) and actually we never promote or encourage. We don’t think it is something that had worked for the United Nations, keeping in mind Srebrenica and what had happened in the past,” he also said.
He was referring to the slaughter by Bosnian Serb troops of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995 in a U.N.-declared “safe zone” where Dutch peacekeepers were unable to protect civilians.
“We understand that there is going to be some kind of security zone which will be very specifically targeted to a military operation or to an area where there has to be some clearance,” Moumtzis said.
“So our hope is that there will be full cooperation by all to make sure it happens as smoothly as possible, without resulting in displacement, and ensuring protection of civilians, ensuring that the basic principles of humanity will be respected on the ground.”
The United Nations is in contact with all sides to explain where clinics, schools, water points, markets and residential areas are located, and to urge them “to stay away from civilian people,” Moumtzis said.
UN: We are ready for close coordination with Turkey
Later on the same day, Moumtzis said that the U.N. is prepared for “very close” coordination with Turkey.
“We would coordinate with Turkey very closely, we are ready for that, to make sure that there is good communication,” he told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.
Moumtzis said he was in Ankara “a couple of weeks ago” and Turkey has provided “very good reassurances” to the U.N. that humanitarian principles and values will be supported if an operation takes place.
ISIS was defeated in Iraq in 2017. In Syria it lost its last territory in March, marking the end of the extremists’ self-declared caliphate. Despite these battlefield defeats, ISIS sleeper cells have continued to launch attacks in both Iraq and Syria.
Turkey says it wants to settle up to 2 million Syrian refugees in the zone. It currently hosts 3.6 million Syrians that fled from the more than eight-year-old conflict in their homeland.