Istanbul to lead fight against IS after US pullout: Tayyip Erdogan

ISTANBUL: Turkey would take over the fight against the militant Islamic State (IS) group in Syria after pullout of US troops from the country, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday, in the latest upheaval wrought by Washington’s abrupt policy shift.

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The surprise announcement by US President Donald Trump this week that he would withdraw roughly 2,000 troops has felled a pillar of American policy in the Middle East. Critics say Trump’s decision will make it harder to find a diplomatic solution to Syria’s seven-year-old conflict.

For Turkey, the step removes a source of friction with the United States. Erdogan has long castigated his Nato ally over its support for Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters against IS. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and an offshoot of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), fighting for Kurdish autonomy across the border on Turkish soil.

Withdrawal plan will be discussed by the two countries in Washington next month, says FM

In a speech in Istanbul, Erdogan said Turkey would mobilise to fight remaining IS fighters in Syria and temporarily delay plans to attack Kurdish fighters in the northeast of Syria — shifts precipitated by the American decision to withdraw troops.

The news was less welcome for other US allies. Both France and Germany warned that the US change of course risked damaging the campaign against IS, the militants who seized big swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014-15 but have now been beaten back to a sliver of Syrian territory.

Likewise, the US-backed militia spearheaded by the YPG said a Turkish attack would force it to divert fighters from the battle against IS to protect its territory.

IS launched an attack in Syria’s southeast against the US-backed SDF militia, emplo­ying car bombs and dozens of militants.

“We will be working on our operational plans to eliminate ISIS (IS) elements, which are said to remain intact in Syria, in line with our conversation with President Trump,” Erdogan said.

The Turkish president had announced plans last week to start an operation east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria to oust the YPG from the area that it largely controls. This week, he said the campaign could come at any moment. But on Friday, he cited the talk with Trump as a reason to wait. “Our phone call with Presi­dent Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials and statements by the United States, has led us to wait a little longer,” he said.

“We have postponed our military operation against the east of the Euphrates river until we see on the ground the result of America’s decision to withdraw from Syria.” Erdogan said, however, that this was not an “open-ended waiting period” and that, due to past “negative experiences”, Ankara welcomed the United States’ statements with an equal amount of pleasure and caution.

Turkey has repeatedly voiced frustration over what it says is the slow implementation of a deal with Washington to pull YPG fighters out of Manbij, a town in mainly Arab territory west of the Euphrates in northern Syria.

‘Time for others to fight’

The US would probably end its air campaign against IS in Syria when it pulled out troops, US officials said. Erdogan’s foreign minister said the withdrawal plan would be discussed by the two countries in Washington in January 2019.

President Trump maintained that IS had been wiped out, a view not shared by key allies, that Washington had been doing the work of other countries and it was “time for others to finally fight”.

Opposing Trump’s decision, US defence secretary Jim Mattis on Thursday abruptly announ­ced he was resigning after meeting with the president.

In a candid letter to President Trump, the retired Marine general highlighted the importance of “showing respect” to allies that have voiced surprise and concern about the president’s decision.

Russia said on Friday it did not understand what the US next steps in Syria would be, adding that chaotic and unpredictable decision-making in Washington was creating discomfort in international affairs.

Several of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress, joined by opposition Democrats, urged the president to reverse course, saying the withdrawal would strengthen the hand of Russia and Iran in Syria and also enable a resurgence of IS.

President Trump, however, gave no sign of changing his mind. He promised to remove forces from Syria during his 2016 election campaign.

The roughly 2,000 US troops in Syria, many of them special forces, were ostensibly helping to combat IS but were also seen as a possible bulwark against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who had retaken much of the country from his foes in the multi-sided civil war, with military help from Iran and Russia.

IS declared a caliphate in 2014 after seizing parts of Syria and Iraq. The hardline militants established their de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.

A senior US official last week said IS was down to the last one per cent of the territory it once held. The group had no remaining territory in Iraq, though militants have resumed attacks since their defeat there last year.

IS launched an attack on Friday on positions held by the SDF in Syria’s southeast and the US-led coalition mounted air strikes in the area, an SDF official said.

Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria may not be able to continue to hold IS prisoners if the situation in the region got out of control after a US pullout, a top Syrian Kurdish official, Ilham Ahmed, said on Friday.

Reuters

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