As President Trump says a withdrawal is on the way, a top US general in the Middle East says he is under no “pressure to be out by any specific date” with no specific conditions, angering Turkey over US intentions.
As Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu Agency releases a video of a 150-vehicle US convoy loaded with military equipment on its way to northeastern Syria - which is under the control of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - Turkey has been left wondering what kind of message Washington wants to send Ankara in the wake of the US withdrawal.
Despite being NATO allies, Turkey and the US have not been on the same page concerning what is going on in northern Syria. While Turkey has repeatedly offered the US its support in the fight against Daesh in the region, Washington has chosen another partner, the YPG, for the anti-Daesh struggle.
In many ways, it is an unacceptable choice for Turkey because the YPG is the Syrian wing of the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU, and the US. The PKK has been waging a three-decade armed campaign against the Turkish state, costing thousands of lives across the country.
As Ankara anxiously monitors the implementation process of President Donald Trump’s withdrawal decision from Syria, Washington has continued to give mixed messages to Turkey. The withdrawal announcement has been updated several times by Trump officials and other prominent politicians like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, changing its timeline and offering certain conditions for the pull-out.
Most recently, General Joseph Votel, the head of American military’s Central Command and the top general watching the Middle East front, suggested that the US has plans to protect the YPG, stating that the withdrawal has neither conditions nor a timeline.
“I am not under pressure to be out by a specific date and I've not had any specific conditions put upon me," Votel told the US Senate Armed Committee on February 5, offering the latest update on the US withdrawal from Syria.
The general also indicated that he was not consulted by Trump over the withdrawal decision, implying a disagreement between Trump and his top brass. Pentagon Chief Joseph Mattis previously resigned from his post, protesting the decision. The US anti-Daesh coordinator Brett McGurk followed suit.
“The US acts in accordance with its imperialist aims (in Syria and Iraq). The US debate on the modality of the withdrawal does not change the essential character of its imperialist aims (in the Middle East),” said Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of the Turkish national intelligence agency (MIT).
In previous interviews, Ones has described US support for the YPG as “a strategic reinforcement” for Washington's “long-term designs” concerning a Kurdish-dominated autonomous region, which will likely be a mirror image of the Kurdish autonomous region it carved out in northern Iraq in the 1990s, soon after the first Gulf War.
The recent US convoy headed towards the YPG zone has reportedly passed from the Semalka border crossing over a pontoon bridge on the Tigris River, which was established by Iraq’s US-designed Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) during the Syrian civil war to connect the YPG-controlled Syrian zone with KRG-controlled territories.
Much of the Turkish establishment is increasingly sceptical about US intentions and has been frustrated by Washington’s mixed messages to Turkey and the disagreements between Trump and the US establishment over Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned, during a parliamentary meeting on February 5, that if Washington does not remove the YPG from Manbij - a contentious town located to the west of the Euphrates River, where the US, the Syrian regime, Turkey, and Russia run their own military posts - Ankara will do it in a few weeks.
The new US military equipment delivery to the YPG, which appears to be part of US plans to protect the YPG as Votel indicated, could potentially deepen the Syrian rift between the two allies.
The latest US shipment happened a day before top Turkish officials in Washington were set to meet their counterparts to discuss the Syrian situation on February 6. On the same day, the White House also hosted a crucial anti-Daesh coalition meeting, bringing together representatives of 74 states and five international organisations.
The US has not only sent a large military convoy to the YPG from Iraq. But also it has recently increased its troops in Syria from 2,000 to 3,000, arousing Turkish suspicions. Trump has recently suggested the US should stay in Iraq to “watch” Iran,
Meanwhile, the allies cannot agree on the terms of the newly US-proposed safe zone in northern Syria. Trump wants to establish a safe zone between Turkey and the US-backed YPG, monitored by the US and other European allies in the region, while Ankara wants to form a buffer zone, which it will exclusively lead to ensure its border security.
"There is no satisfactory plan that is put before us concretely yet," Erdogan said.
"Of course, we are loyal to our agreements, our promise is a promise. But our patience is not limitless," he warned.