- Turkey will go ahead with its planned offensive against Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria whether or not the U.S. withdraws its troops from the country, its foreign minister said Thursday.
- The warning comes after American officials attempted to condition a U.S. troop pullout on a guarantee of safety for its Kurdish partners and Turkish non-aggression.
- Ankara, which views the U.S.-backed Kurdish militias in Syria as terrorists, has already amassed thousands of Turkish troops along its border with Syria.
"If the (withdrawal) is put off with ridiculous excuses like Turks are massacring Kurds, which do not reflect the reality, we will implement this decision," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told local news station NTV, without elaborating on a timeline.
The warning comes after American officials attempted to condition a U.S. troop pullout on a guarantee of safety for its Kurdish partners and Turkish non-aggression — something Turkish President Recep Erdogan promptly smacked down on Tuesday. Now Ankara, which has amassed thousands of Turkish troops along its border with Syria, says it will act regardless of a U.S. delay.
"We are determined on the field and at the table," Cavusoglu said. "We will decide on its timing and we will not receive permission from anyone."
White House national security advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have spent the week in the Middle East trying to reassure allies of America's commitment in the wake of President Donald Trump's shock announcement to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria. Security officials and lawmakers have warned this would mean abandoning local partners on the ground and undermining U.S. credibility when it comes to alliances.
The White House and State Department did not respond to requests for comment on Cavusoglu's statements at the time of publication.
Turkey's government has long threatened to unilaterally attack the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), the U.S.-supported militias controlling large swaths of northern Syria that spearheaded the local fight against the Islamic State. Ankara views the YPG as terrorists and a security threat on its southern border, stressing its ties to a separate Kurdish group that's carried out a decades-long, violent insurgency against the Turkish state.
The two NATO allies continue to lock horns over the issue of the Kurds, which has proved a massive thorn in U.S.-Turkey relations since the Pentagon began arming and training the Kurds to battle IS in Syria in 2015.
Allies in the global anti-IS coalition and in Congress also voiced concern that the campaign against the extremist group was not finished. Trump, defending his decision, stressed that it's now time for other countries to fill the U.S.'s role, and welcomed Erdogan's offer to take on the fight against IS — an offer that many critics see as a cover for having free reign to kill YPG members in Syria. Experts also warn that if Turkey attacks the Kurds, they will be forced to abandon the anti-IS fight in order to defend themselves.
For those who have long studied the region, a guarantee of Turkish non-aggression toward the Kurds, as White House officials have suggested, was never going to be feasible.
"The U.S. (or Bolton) attitude is precisely that the YPG should be left alone. This is not a feasible condition, and indeed, its improbability is what makes it attractive to US officials looking to keep the U.S. in Syria," said Faysal Itani, a Syria expert at the Atlantic Council.
For the Kurds themselves, the crisis may be existential.
"Kurds in Syria that I am constantly in contact with say they want to see action rather than statements because in their view threats from Turkey are very serious," Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst based in Washington D.C., told CNBC. They point to Turkey's offensive in the northwestern Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin that began in January of last year and drove hundreds of thousands of Kurds to refugee camps.
"If Trump's team allows Erdogan to move his forces into northeastern Syria, it would be like inviting the fox to guard the henhouse," said Nick Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former research associate at the National Defense University. This, he said, would be "a policy that would invite massacres, not the stabilization of post-IS Syria."