A view of Turkish military checkpoint outside of southeastern town of Silopi, Turkey (Photographer: Staton R. Winter/Bloomberg News)

Turkey Edges Closer to Attacking Kurdish Stronghold in Syria

(Bloomberg) -- Turkey’s military deployed hundreds of vehicles and troops in areas surrounding a northwestern Syrian town that Ankara has long pushed the U.S. to clear of Kurdish militant groups.

Soldiers in a convoy of around 200 vehicles including howitzers, armored military personnel carriers and artillery advanced to reinforce the military’s presence in areas close to Manbij, TRT said on Sunday.

The state broadcaster broadcast video from the outskirts of Manbij, located on the western flank of the Euphrates River that splits northern Syria roughly into two halves. The town was a source of tension between the U.S. and Turkey because Ankara accused Washington of stalling on a June agreement to push Kurdish forces away from the area.

Since then Turkey has repeatedly vowed to capture Manbij, but U.S. troops in the region were a major obstacle to carrying out a military operation. President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw forces disappointed the Kurds and left them exposed to Turkish Forces.

Turkey Edges Closer to Attacking Kurdish Stronghold in Syria

Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. decided its most reliable ally in the fight against Islamic State in Syria was the Kurdish militant group YPG, and gave it extensive support. Sunday’s military deployment could mark a rapid change in the dynamics between the two countries after Trump announced American forces would quit Syria following a Dec. 14 phone call with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Trump said he had a “long and productive” call with Erdogan on Sunday, tweeting that they discussed “the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area. After many years they are coming home.” The two men also discussed expanded trade, Trump said.

Erdogan said he’d “provide all kinds of support to the United States, its NATO ally” in the anti-terrorism campaign in Syria, according to a readout of the call published by Turkey. The two leaders agreed to maintain coordination to avoid a power vacuum in the war-torn country, Turkey said.

Trump’s decision to withdraw drew cautious optimism from Turkish officials. While indicating an end to American support for the YPG, the withdrawal could also pave the way for a power grab by Iran and Russia, the two other key actors in the Syrian civil war.

Absence of the U.S. sets Russian President Vladimir Putin up as a pivotal figure in resolving the Syrian war and strengthens his hand across the Middle East. Trump’s declaration fulfills a long-standing Russian demand for a U.S. withdrawal from Syria.

In 2015, when the Syrian Democratic Forces were created under U.S. auspices to fight Islamic State, YPG members formed its backbone. French President Emmanuel Macron Sunday praised the international coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces’ work against ISIS.

“We must not forget what we owe them,” Macron said Sunday on a visit to Chad. He said he regrets Trump’s pullout decision.

The SDF is dominated by Syrian Kurds, but it also includes Arab forces. France offered to mediate between Turkey and the SDF this year but Turkey rejected dialogue, citing SDF’s affiliation with PKK, designated a terrorist group by both Turkey and the U.S.

TRT said Sunday that the U.S. has already pulled out all of the 300 to 400 soldiers it had in Manbij but Kurdish forces remained in their positions.

Turkey has long criticized the U.S. for training and arming the YPG, which it says is linked to domestic terrorists it has fought for more than three decades. Washington has been adamant that its collaboration with the group was “temporary, transactional and tactical.”

TRT said the additional troops and military vehicles were sent to reinforce areas that were already in Turkey’s sphere of influence thanks to a previous military operation called the Euphrates Shield. In that campaign, Turkey took over Jarablus as well as areas surrounding it. Jarablus is some 30 kilometers (19 miles) away from Manbij.

Sunday’s deployment is another sign that Erdogan has managed to become a more central player both in Middle Eastern politics and U.S. foreign policy, capitalizing on an American president eager to fulfill promises to extricate troops from quagmires.

Just months earlier, Trump and Erdogan were facing off over new American tariffs, Turkey’s refusal to release an American pastor and demands that the U.S. extradite a cleric it believes was behind a failed 2016 coup.

Phone calls to the U.S. Department of Defense and the Central Command seeking comment outside of normal business hours went unanswered. The Department of Defense also didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

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