Turkey says it will take over ISIS fight after US withdrawal

Turkey is to take over the fight against remaining ISIS fighters in Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said, as the fallout from the abrupt US withdrawal from the war-torn country continues.

Mr Trump announced on Wednesday that around 2,000 US troops would leave the country, claiming he had defeated ISIS. It was a shock announcement that experts and diplomats say will have far-reaching implications for both regional and global security, hand power in Syria to Iran and Russia and do little to end the country’s seven-year civil war. US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis resigned on Thursday, apparently in protest at Mr Trump’s decision.

In a speech in Istanbul on Friday, Mr Erdogan said Turkey would mobilise to fight remaining ISIS forces in Syria and temporarily delay plans to attack Kurdish fighters in the northeast of Syria – shifts both precipitated by the American decision to withdraw.

“Our phone call with President Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials and statements by the United States, have 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.”

The step is one that Turkey has long lobbied for, castigating its Nato ally for supporting Kurdish fighters it says pose a national security risk as they fight for Kurdish autonomy on Turkish soil.

The Turkish leader’s statement will be particularly concerning for Syria’s Kurds who have for four years fought on behalf of the US-led coalition to battle ISIS on the ground and reclaim territory seized by the militant group. Ankara views the Kurds as terrorists linked to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has long fought an insurgency against the Turkish government and accused it of repression.

Syrian Kurdish leaders have said they could pull fighters from the battle against ISIS and redeploy them to the Turkish border if Ankara is planning a military operation against them.

Ilham Ahmad, one of two co-chairs of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), warned that a Turkish attack could bring the battle against the ISIS in Syria to a halt. The SDF is waging the battle for the last pockets of ISIS territory in eastern Syria.

“We will continue our mission but confronting this terrorism will be difficult because our forces will be forced to withdraw from the frontlines in Deir Ezzor to take up positions on the border with Turkey to counter any attack we may face,” she said.

She also warned that around 1,000 ISIS fighters are languishing in Kurdish prisons in Syria and any campaign against the Kurds that redrafts their fighters may see them released.

French presidency officials met representatives of the SDF in Paris on Friday and assured them of French support, an Elysee palace official told Reuters.

Officials from the US-backed SDF met with advisers to French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday following US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces. The SDF officials included Ilham Ahmed and Riad Darrar.

“The advisers passed on a message of support and solidarity and explained to them the talks France had with U.S. authorities to continue the fight against Daesh,” the Elysee official said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

There are similar concerns in Afghanistan where Mr Trump has halved Washington’s troop count there, leaving generals worried that the security situation will deteriorate without a strong level of US support for its burgeoning military.

But United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has assured Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi that the US is still committed to fighting ISIS in Iraq and other areas despite its planned withdrawal of troops from Syria, the latter’s office said on Saturday.

Mr Abdul Mahdi and Mr Pompeo discussed the withdrawal and Washington’s decision to grant Iraq a 90-day extension on a waiver from sanctions against Iran that would allow Baghdad to purchase electricity from Tehran, the Iraqi prime minister’s office said in a statement.

The decision by Mr Trump, announced on his personal Twitter account, appeared to come after he had a phone call with Mr Erdogan. The Turkish president reportedly asked Mr Trump to stop his funding and arming of Kurdish fighters to which Mr Trump replied “you know what? It’s yours. I’m leaving,” according to The Washington Post.

Mr Trump maintained that ISIS 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”.

His national security advisers tried to block his decision and persuade him to change his mind but last-minute efforts ultimately failed.

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