Kurdish forces in Syria have said the fate of tens of thousands of suspected Islamic State fighters and their families is uncertain, after US forces began a sudden withdrawal from the country, abandoning their former ally on the eve of a widely-anticipated Turkish invasion.
The effects of the shock retreat continued to reverberate through the region on Monday as Turkish forces massed near the border with the Kurdish stronghold of north-eastern Syria.
The looming offensive– which was green-lighted by Donald Trump in a phone call to Recep Tayyip Erdogan late on Sunday – came as a surprise to US officials and allies, who were scrambling to understand the implications. There was a furious backlash in Congress, including from some of Trump’s closest allies, who accused the president of betraying the Kurds.
The decision represents the latest in a series of erratic moves by Trump, who is fighting impeachment at home, apparently taken without consultation with, or knowledge of, US diplomats dealing with Syria, or the UK and France, the US’s main international partners in the country.
A White House statement on Sunday night after his conversation with his Turkish counterpart said that: “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria”, adding that US forces were being removed from the area.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Monday its US partners had already begun withdrawing troops from areas along Turkey’s border. Footage aired on Kurdish news agency Hawar purportedly showed US armoured vehicles evacuating key positions in the border region.
The SDF spokesman, Mustafa Bali, accused the US of leaving the area to “turn into a war zone”, adding that the SDF would “defend north-east Syria at all costs”.
But on Monday the Pentagon, which has been cooperating with Turkey along the Syrian border, issued a statement saying: “The department of defence made clear to Turkey – as did the president – that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in northern Syria. The US armed forces will not support or be involved in any such operation.”
State department officials also sought to minimize the announcement, telling reporters that only about two dozen American troops would be removed from the Turkey-Syria border, and suggesting that Turkey might not go through with a large-scale invasion.