Monday 21 October 2019

Under-fire Trump rows back on Syria withdrawal

On the move: Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters head to an area near the Syrian-Turkish border north of Aleppo after US forces began pulling back from the other side. Photo: AFP via Getty Images
On the move: Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters head to an area near the Syrian-Turkish border north of Aleppo after US forces began pulling back from the other side. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Josie Ensor in Istanbul

Donald Trump yesterday backtracked on his promise to withdraw US troops from Syria, after it provoked a firestorm of criticism.

The US president said on Monday he wanted to extricate troops from "ridiculous endless wars".

But he faced an immediate backlash from fellow Republicans, the intelligence community and foreign leaders who claimed such a move would send a troubling message to US allies around the world.

Yesterday, Mr Trump struck a cowed note, insisting that "in no way have we abandoned the Kurds" ahead of a planned Turkish offensive.

He also claimed that the US had had only 50 soldiers left in that section of Syria.

Earlier in the day, the White House briefed that it was not an immediate "drawdown" of forces, as Mr Trump had represented it at first, but simply a military "restructuring".

In a background briefing, a senior administration official told reporters that the shift in strategy was not a withdrawal but that the affected troops - numbering 50 to 100 - would merely be relocated to other bases in the region.

The announcement by the president that he was effectively giving a green light to a Turkish offensive on Kurdish forces in Syria had come as a shock, not only to US partners but to US servicemen, too.

"We're departing the field," read the message sent to some 1,000 American troops stationed in Syria on Monday morning, the first they had heard of the retreat.

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

The Pentagon attempted to row back Mr Trump's decision, sending out a counter-statement warning Ankara that the US does not support such a "destabilising" move.

"The Department of Defence made clear to Turkey - as did the president - that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in northern Syria," said Secretary of Defence for Public Affairs Jonathan Hoffan.

"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".

Mr Trump spent much of yesterday attempting to mitigate the 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."

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

But the fallout was already being felt on the ground. Turkey said it was ready to press ahead with its attack on US-backed Kurdish-led forces in north-east Syria.

Meanwhile, the Kurds, who have spent the past few years building a state in northern Syria under the US's watch, were forced to consider the unpalatable prospect of making a deal for survival with the regime in Damascus and president Bashar al-Assad.

Yesterday, a fuller account also emerged of the hours that led to Mr Trump's abrupt announcement.

Minutes after coming off the phone with Mr Erdogan on Sunday night, Mr Trump declared he was approving Turkey's long-threatened inv­asion of Syria. It was a prime example of the on-the-hoof diplomacy for which he has become known.

The Turkish leader has for months been trying to sell the idea of a "safe zone" along his southern border, most recently with an appeal to the United Nations General Assembly.

He had hoped to collar the US president in New York for a one-on-one talk on the subject, but Mr Trump reportedly could not make time in his schedule.

By the time of last 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.

The Nato allies agreed in August to establish the zone, which involved moving Kurdish People's Protection Units fighters, whom Ankara considers as 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 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 Pentagon policy-makers. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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