Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, May 2017
Turkey mobilized its forces near Kurdish areas in Syria on Sunday, as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke again with Donald Trump about US withdrawal.
Nine days ago, Trump suddenly decided during a phone call with Erdoğan that 2,000 US personnel must be removed. He abandoned staff guidance to take a firm line with the Turkish President against Ankara’s threatened offensive against the Kurdish territory in northern Syria, about 27% of the country.
Advisors could not persaude Trump to reverse the order. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned on Thursday, and Brett McGurk, the special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, quit on Friday.
With the prospect of the US military abandoning the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces — who have pushed back the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria since autumn 2015 — Turkey reportedly moved 50 vehicles with troops and equipment near Manbij in Aleppo Province, the western edge of the Kurdish line frontline.
A spokesman for the Kurdish-led Manbij Military Council, Sharfan Darwish, said Turkish reinforcements had arrived in the area: “We are taking necessary measures to defend ourselves if we are attacked.”
The US and Turkey have a tenuous agreement to oversee security around Manbij, which has a largely-Arab population. However, in recent weeks Ankara had declared that the Americans were not ensuring the withdrawal of the Kurdish YPG militia from the town.
A Gradual Turkish Buildup?
However, the summary of Sunday’s Trump-Erdoğan call pointed to a gradual Turkish buildup of forces, rather than an imminent offensive.
Trump’s sudden declaration on December 14 reportedly caught the Turkish President off-guard, because Ankara’s forces were not ready to move into areas with US personnel. Erdoğan reportedly cautioned Trump not to take out the American troops immediately.
The Turkish Government said last week that Erdoğan’s threatened offensive to remove “terrorists” — Ankara views the YPG and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) as part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK — is being delayed to avoid “friendly fire” on wtihdrawing US forces.
Ankara’s caution appeared to recur in Trump’s description of the call discussing “a slow and highly coordinated” departure.
I just had a long and productive call with President @RT_Erdogan of Turkey. We discussed ISIS, our mutual involvement in Syria, & the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area. After many years they are coming home. We also discussed heavily expanded Trade.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2018
Erdogan tweeted: “I had a productive call with [Trump] today, in which we agreed to strengthen our coordination on a range of issues, including our trade relations and the developments in Syria.”
A US military spokesperson said Trump’s order had been signed, without providing details.
1st High-Level Official Meeting Between Assad Regime and Egypt
In a sign of thawing relations with some Arab states, the Assad regime has held its first official high-level meeting with its Egyptian counterpart.
The regime’s head of State Security, Ali Mamlouk — wanted for war crimes in some countries because of his alleged role in mass killings during the Syrian uprising — visited Cairo on Saturday at the invitation of Egyptian Minister Abbas Kamel.
Syrian State media said the discussion was on “various issues of mutual concern, including political and security issues in addition to counter-terrorism efforts”.
The Arab League suspended Syrian membership in 2011. But the Assad regime is proclaiming contacts with some states, with some rumors even asserting that the UAE and Saudi Arabia — who have backed the opposition in the uprising — are in private contact with Damascus.