Turkey will soon move forward with its long-planned military operation to create what it calls a "safe zone" in northern Syria – and U.S. forces will not support or be involved in it, the White House press secretary announced early Monday morning. The move is an extraordinary reversal of US policy that leaves America's allies wondering whether they can still rely on the Trump administration.
The statement came after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and US President Donald Trump discussed in a phone call Turkey's plans to establish a "safe zone" east of the Euphrates River in Syria. For four years, the US and mostly Kurdish fighters have fought and defeated Islamic State in northeast Syria.
Trump's decision will displace Syrian forces the US has been working with to fight ISIS.
The White House decision will effectively displace the partner forces the US had been working with. For more than a year and a half, Trump has been seeking to leave Syria. In the midst of the impeachment crisis, he has now made the decision to sacrifice US allies in the war on ISIS as opposed to pressuring Ankara with diplomatic means.
"Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria," the White House press secretary said in a statement.
"The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial 'Caliphate,' will no longer be in the immediate area," it added.
The White House looks at the overall picture in eastern Syria, not as one in which the US fought and sacrificed alongside Kurdish partner forces, but as a simple transactional issue.
In this view, the US has no interests in eastern Syria, except the ISIS fighters. Washington has no interests in creating stability, preventing Iranian influence, defending its partners, preventing ethnic cleansing or the destruction of property, or in managing the crisis. Instead, it decided that its mission was tailored and narrow, and nothing beyond the ISIS issue.
In Trump's view, the US has no interest in stopping Iranian encroachment in eastern Syria.
This is despite other statements America has made about stopping Iranian encroachment in Syria or other supposed goals the US has paid lip service to like "religious freedom" and "stabilization." Washington initially appeared committed to de-mining and reconstruction in some areas affected by the ISIS war. Now, the US statement on Syria says nothing of this.
The US says it is not responsible for holding ISIS detainees at the expense of American taxpayers. "Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years, in the wake of the defeat of the territorial 'caliphate' by the United States," the statement read.
This brief statement puts an end to almost five years of America's anti-ISIS war in eastern Syria, which began with supporting the Kurds who were trapped in the city of Kobani, then under siege by the jihadist group. The US began air strikes in September 2014 to stop ISIS from taking Kobani. Now, five years later, Washington is giving Ankara green light to take over eastern Syria, displace its residents and replace them with its own refugees. This comes after Turkey did the same thing in Afrin earlier this year and displaced 160,000 Kurdish people.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.