The Trump administration’s decision to completely withdraw troops from Syria comes after Turkey’s plans to carry out an operation against the YPG east of the Euphrates river. This is how it came about:
Washington is fully withdrawing its troops from Syria, where it has allied with the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK terror group, to fight against Daesh, US officials said on Wednesday. The decision comes despite the Pentagon’s previous plans to keep its troops in the country.
In October, the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey said US presence in Syria was aimed at defeating Daesh and forcing the departure of “all Iranian -commanded forces” from Syria.
“The conflict is not over, and there are still dangers,” he said.
The Trump administration’s move came after Ankara revealed its plan to carry out an operation to the east of the Euphrates river in Syria, taking security measures into its own hands after long back and forth negotiations with the US on YPG presence in Syria. Both Turkey and the US consider the PKK a terrorist organisation.
"We will start the operation to clear the east of the Euphrates from separatist terrorists in a few days," Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on December 12, outlining the country’s long-planned operation on YPG targets.
He later said Turkey would also “walk into” Manbij if the US didn’t remove the YPG from the northern city, which lies in a mainly Arab territory west of the Euphrates in Syria, and send them back to the eastern bank of the river.
This is how it came about:
After Erdogan’s statement, the United States reacted to Turkey’s plans with “grave concern”, saying that “coordination and consultation between Turkey and the US is the only way to address issues of security concern in the area”. It signalled that Turkey’s concerns regarding its borders wouldn’t be completely ignored by the US.
The US has been supporting the YPG, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) since Daesh spread to Syria from Iraq in 2014. Turkey, which supported the Syrian opposition forces, the Free Syrian Army, to fight against Daesh in the country, strongly objected to the decision. In 2015, the US founded the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to fight against Daesh. As a defeated Daesh has been pushed into the deserted areas in the country, the YPG has taken control of the recaptured cities.
To address Turkey’s demands for the withdrawal of the YPG, citing security concerns on its borders, Ankara and Washington agreed on a roadmap in June, and Turkish and American troops began conducting joint patrols in Manbij on November 1.
However, Ankara has recently repeated its frustrations about what it says are delays in the implementation of a deal with the US to clear the YPG from Manbij. When announcing the plans for the operation, Erdogan said the step would allow for “the path to a political solution to be opened and for healthier cooperation."
Four days after Erdogan’s statement, reports emerged that the US had helped Peshmerga forces to cross from Iraq into northeastern Syria to bolster the Turkey-Syria border. But only 100 of them were allowed by the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, which is listed as a terror organisation by Turkey and the US. However, they were quickly pushed back to Iraq by the PYD.
“It seems increasingly likely to me that the arrival of 100 Peshmerga into SDF territories in NE Syria is one piece of a process of US-Turkey negotiations,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, commented in a tweet. He said the move had been aimed at preventing Turkey’s planned operation, which could de-escalate the situation.
The latest statement from the US, saying it is considering withdrawing from Syria, came after the YPG rejected the US offer to talk with the Peshmerga.
“These victories over ISIS [Daesh] in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign. We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
A US official told Reuters after the US withdrawal announcement that all the US State Department personnel are being evacuated from Syria within 24 hours.
The official said President Erdogan and President Trump agreed on the decision in a phone call on Friday. Washington plans to withdraw troops within 60 to 100 days, according to a Reuters report citing a US official.