Turkish soldiers patrol the road near the Turkey-Iraq border in Sirnak, Turkey. (Photographer: Staton Winter/Bloomberg)

Turkey Prepares to Shoulder Fight Against Islamic State in Syria

(Bloomberg) -- Turkey’s army is preparing to take over the fight against remnants of Islamic State in Syria now that the U.S. is withdrawing its troops, and is massing troops within Syria to replace U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in a strategically located town.

Turkey and the U.S. agreed to make sure Kurdish forces are withdrawn from the northern town of Manbij before the U.S. pullout, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday. Turkey has insisted that the Kurdish fighters, who are affiliated with the separatist Turkish Kurdish PKK militant group, be withdrawn east of the Euphrates River under a June agreement with Washington.

Manbij is the last major Syrian town controlled by Kurdish forces west of the Euphrates, and Turkey is eager to see all Kurdish forces withdraw east of the river so they can’t attempt to access the Mediterranean.

Turkey wants to fill the power vacuum that will be left in Syria by the withdrawal of American troops and is coordinating its army’s plans with both Washington and Moscow. Cavusoglu warned France against shielding Kurdish YPG fighters from a Turkish assault after Kurdish forces called for a larger French role after the U.S. withdrawal.

“Turkey has the power to eradicate Daesh in Syria on its own,” Cavusoglu said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “If France stays in Syria with the aim of protecting YPG that would neither be beneficial for Syria or the YPG.”

A broader fight against Islamic State would significantly expand Turkey’s involvement in Syria, where other Islamist militants are trying to hold on to their last stronghold in the northwest province of Idlib. On Monday, Turkey warned Syria that it would forcefully retaliate against any attack on its military positions there.

Turkey’s strained ties with Washington have improved immeasurably in the past week. The State Department notified Congress of a proposal to sell Patriot air and missile defense systems to Ankara, which has alarmed its NATO allies with its plan to procure S-400 missiles from Russia. Then President Donald Trump yielded to a suggestion from Erdogan to pull U.S. forces from Syria, where they have been fighting Islamic State., shocking even those in his inner circle and leading to the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Presidential Visit

Erdogan has invited Trump to visit Turkey in 2019, according to the White House and the Turkish presidential palace on Monday.
Ankara’s decision to buy Patriot missiles is subject to discussions on joint production, price, technology transfer and delivery time, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Monday. “If the U.S. administration can come up with a proposal that could satisfy Turkey and meet the conditions, then Turkey would look at it favorably,” he said.

In another sign of a rapprochement with the U.S., Cavusoglu said Halkbank’s former head of international banking, Hakan Atilla, who was convicted by a U.S. court in January for helping Iran evade sanctions on billions of dollars of oil revenue, may be freed to return home.

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