As Turkish troops finalise plans, the government’s scheme to move millions of refugees into conquered territory in northeast Syria is alarming some Western allies as much as the military operation itself.
For Turkey, which views Kurdish YPG fighters in northeast Syria as terrorists because of their ties to militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey, an influx of non-Kurdish Syrians would help it secure a buffer against its main security threat.
The US move will leave Kurdish-led forces long allied to Washington vulnerable to attack by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK).
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan will visit the United States on November 13 at Trump’s invitation, a White House spokesman said.
On Monday, Erdogan said US troops had started to withdraw after a phone call he had with Trump, adding that talks between Turkish and US officials on the matter would continue.
On Tuesday, a US official said US Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley took part in the phone call, but the official did not provide further details.
“Given the likely military issues raised on the call between (Trump) and President Erdogan, Secretary of Defense Esper and Chairman Milley participated on the call,” said the official.
Earlier, the Pentagon said Esper and Milley had been consulted by Trump “over the last several days” about a possible Turkish strike in Syria.
“Unfortunately, Turkey has chosen to act unilaterally. As a result we have moved the US forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety,” US Defence Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.
A Turkish security official said one of the main goals of the overnight strike was to cut off a transit route between Iraq and Syria often used by Kurdish armed groups “before the operation in Syria”.
It was unclear what damage was done or whether there were casualties. Details of the strike, a joint operation by Turkey’s intelligence service and the military, were hazy. One official described them as an air strike, while the other said the site was made “unusable through various means”.
Trump denied he had abandoned the Kurdish forces, the most effective US partners in fighting Islamic State in Syria. But he praised Turkey as a trade partner, in a softening of tone hours after threatening to “totally destroy” Turkey’s economy if it acted “off limits” in Syria.
Amid deepening humanitarian concerns, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all parties in northeast Syria to exercise maximum restraint and protect civilians.
Signalling a further potential shift in the region’s power balance, the Kurdish- led forces said they might start talks with the Syrian government and Russia to fill a security vacuum in the event of a full US withdrawal.