US withdrawal from Syria leaves allies stunned
ANKARA - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on Thursday vowed to work closer to end the fighting in Syria.
But the two leaders made no comment on US President Donald Trump's shock announcement that he was pulling US troops out of the war-ravaged nation.
The two leaders sat down for the meeting in Ankara, which was arranged before US President Donald Trump's announcement.
Trump stunned allies and American officials on Wednesday with an order to pull ground forces from the war-ravaged nation, with US officials later confirming that the move also signifies an end to the US air campaign against Islamic State in Syria.
The US-led air war has been critical to rolling back Islamic State and keeping pressure on the militant group in Iraq and Syria, with more than 100,000 bombs and missiles fired at targets in the two countries since 2015, according to Air Force data.
US officials said that the timing of the end of the air campaign would be linked to the withdrawal of the US forces but declined to set a date for when that would happen.
Ankara has repeatedly called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ouster and supported Syrian opposition fighters. Tehran and Moscow are Damascus's strongest allies and have helped to turn the war in Assad's favour.
Despite their differences, Turkey has been working closely with Iran and Russia to find a political solution to the war through the Astana process launched last year.
As part of the peace talks which began in the Kazakh capital, the three countries agreed four "de-escalation" zones in Syria. All of those except the northwestern province of Idlib have been retaken by Damascus.
The Turkish, Iranian and Russian foreign ministers met on Tuesday in Geneva for talks with UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura. Afterwards they voiced hope that a committee tasked with writing a new Syrian constitution would begin early next year.
Turkey and Iran, regional rivals for centuries, have in recent times focused on developing a pragmatic relationship and boosting trade.
Momentum to recover
Erdogan threatened last week to launch a new operation east of the Euphrates in northern Syria against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).
This US-backed Kurdish militia is viewed by Ankara as a "terrorist offshoot" of Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey.
While the YPG has spearheaded Washington's fight against IS, US support has strained relations between the NATO allies.
There are around 2,000 US forces in Syria, most of them on a train-and-advise mission helping the YPG under the banner of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance fighting against the Islamic State extremist group.
The force warned on Thursday that the troop pullout announced by the White House could allow the jihadists to rebuild.
"It will have a negative impact on the counterterrorism campaign," the SDF said in a statement.
"It will give terrorism... the momentum to recover and conduct a terrorist campaign in the region," the statement said.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar earlier on Thursday said that Ankara was "working intensely" on the subject of the east of the Euphrates and the flashpoint city of Manbij held by the YPG.
"When the time and place comes, they (the YPG) will be buried in the pits they dig," Akar vowed during his visit to Doha, according to state news agency Anadolu.
The Pentagon had previously said that unilateral military action by any party in northeast Syria would be unacceptable.
Turkey has already intervened to sweep YPG and Islamic State fighters from territory west of the Euphrates over the past two years. It has not gone east of the river, partly to avoid direct confrontation with US forces.
Stunned US allies
US allies were stunned Thursday after Trump's declaration of victory.
The decision runs counter to long-established US policy for Syria and the region. It blindsided lawmakers, the Pentagon and international allies alike.
Britain and France warned on Thursday that the fight against jihadists in Syria was not finished.
Trump earlier said: "We've won against ISIS," in a short video posted on Twitter.
"We've beaten them and we've beaten them badly. We've taken back the land. And now it's time for our troops to come back home."
A withdrawal could have major geopolitical ramifications, and plunges into uncertainty the fate of the Islamic State jihadists, thousands of whom are thought to remain in Syria.
The Islamic State declared a caliphate in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The hardline group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.
According to US estimates, the group oversaw about 100,000 square kms of territory, with about 8 million people under its control. It had estimated revenues of nearly $1 billion a year.
The group is down to its last 1 percent of the territory it once held. It has no remaining territory in Iraq, although militants have resumed insurgent attacks since the group's defeat there last year.
A US official said that Trump's decision was finalized Tuesday.
"Full withdrawal, all means all," the official said when asked if the troops would be pulled from across Syria.
Pentagon officials scrambled for a reaction. A spokeswoman eventually said the Defense Department had "started the process" of bringing troops home.
Lawmakers assailed Trump's decision, saying it could embolden Ankara to attack US-backed Kurdish fighters, who are Washington's most reliable partner in Syria and among the most effective ground forces battling the Islamic State (ISIS).
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, said the president's decision was unwise and put the Kurds "at risk."
Democratic Senator Jack Reed said it amounted to a "betrayal" of the Kurds that "provides further evidence of President Trump's inability to lead on the world stage."
Blasting the move as a "huge Obama-like mistake," Graham said "I fear it will lead to devastating consequences for our nation, the region and throughout the world."
Too much winning
Most US troops are stationed in northern Syria, though a small contingent is based at a garrison in Al-Tanaf, near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders.
Trump has previously voiced skepticism about the US presence in Syria, saying in March he wanted to bring troops home "soon."
But military advisors and international allies warned Trump against a precipitous pullout, and he later acquiesced to an indefinite Syria mission.
The US official would not provide a withdrawal timeline, saying only it would come "as quickly as possible."
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the US-led coalition that includes dozens of nations would continue fighting the jihadists.
"These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign," Sanders said in a statement.
A senior administration official said Trump's decision was consistent with comments he has made for years.
"The notion that anyone within the administration was caught unaware, I would challenge that," the official said.
The US decision to withdraw from Syria marks a remarkable development not just for the Kurds, but for years-old US doctrine in the region.
Only last week, Brett McGurk, the special envoy to defeat IS, said "nobody is declaring a mission accomplished."
"If we've learned one thing over the years, enduring defeat of a group like (IS) means you can't just defeat their physical space and then leave," he said.
'Short-sighted and naive'
Trump's surprise announcement on Wednesday has left many questions unanswered, including how US allies and partners will fill the void.
US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that US commanders on the ground are also concerned about the impact of a quick withdrawal and were surprised by the decision.
Trump's move also drew criticism from some US allies, including Britain and France, which said Islamic State militants had not been defeated and that its troops would remain in Syria.
A statement issued by the British government, which has long supported the anti-IS campaign in Syria, said "much remains to be done" against the jihadists.
"We must not lose sight of the threat they pose. Even without territory, (IS) will remain a threat," the statement read.
Junior defence minister Tobias Ellwood was more blunt, retweeting a message from Trump that the jihadists had been defeated in Syria with the words: "I strongly disagree.
"It has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive."
The Times newspaper on Thursday reported that Britain had not been informed of the decision before Trump announced it.
France said Thursday it will maintain its participation in the coalition fighting IS forces in Syria.
"For now of course we remain in Syria," France's European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau said on CNews television, adding "the fight against terrorism is not over."
"It's true that the coalition has made significant progress in Syria, but this fight continues, and we will continue it," she said.
European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau said "the fight against terrorism is not over."
France is especially sensitive to the Islamic State threat after several major deadly attacks on its soil and officials believe the militant group continues to pose a threat. Hundreds of French nationals have joined the group in Syria.
In a statement, the foreign ministry said Paris and its coalition allies had started talks with Washington on the timeframe and conditions for the US withdrawal.
"The protection of the populations of northeastern Syria and the stability of this zone must be taken into account by the United States to avoid any new humanitarian drama and any return of the terrorists," it said.
It said Paris would be careful to ensure the security of all the US partners in the area, including the SDF.
A US presence in Syria is seen as key to pushing against Russian and Iranian influence. Pro-Iran militias have supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Moscow in 2015 intervened in the conflict to prop him up.
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, called the decision "extraordinarily short-sighted and naive."
"This is not just a dream scenario for ISIS, but also for Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, all of whom stand to benefit substantially from a US withdrawal," Lister said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meanwhile said he largely agreed with Trump that Islamic State had been defeated in Syria, but added there was a risk it could regroup.
He also questioned what Trump's announcement would mean in practical terms, saying there was no sign yet of a withdrawal of US forces whose presence in Syria Moscow says is illegitimate.
Israel, which may worry that its main ally's exit could reduce its diplomatic leverage with Russia, the Syrian government's big-power backer, said it will continue to act "very aggressively against Iran's efforts to entrench in Syria."
Some Israeli officials have said the US withdrawal could help Iran by removing a US garrison that stems the movement of Iranian forces and weaponry into Syria from Iraq.
"We do not intend to reduce our efforts. We will intensify them, and I know that we do so with the full support and backing of the United States," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
An Israeli security cabinet member, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, told Israel's Army Radio: "Of course the American decision is not good for us. But we know that safeguarding Israel's security is also an American interest in the region."
"Daesh (Islamic State) has indeed been defeated in Syria, and this is greatly thanks to America," Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, another member of Netanyahu's security cabinet, said in a statement. "But Iran are already moving in, and they are a threat to the whole free world."
And a Syrian member of parliament, Peter Marjana, said that the US pullout is a “recognition that Syria has won.”