As Turkey Threatens, US-Partnered Forces Pull Back from Northern Syria

This September 14, 2018 file photo, protesters wave revolutionary Syrian and Turkish flags as they attend a demonstration against the Syrian government offensive in Idlib, in Maarat al-Numan, south of Idlib, Syria. (Ugur Can/DHA via AP)
This September 14, 2018 file photo, protesters wave revolutionary Syrian and Turkish flags as they attend a demonstration against the Syrian government offensive in Idlib, in Maarat al-Numan, south of Idlib, Syria. (Ugur Can/DHA via AP)

With help and oversight from the U.S. military, the Syrian Democratic Forces have begun pulling back from northern Syria east of the Euphrates and destroying fortifications built up against a threatened attack by Turkey, according to U.S. Central Command.

In a Twitter post Aug. 23, Central Command showed backhoes and bulldozers leveling SDF defensive berms and filling in trenches under a deal worked out earlier this month by a Pentagon delegation sent to Ankara.

The deal would create a buffer zone long sought by Turkey in northeastern Syria, stretching from the Euphrates to the Iraq border, that would be jointly patrolled by the U.S. and Turkey, according to statements from Central Command and the Turkish Defense Ministry.

The Twitter post from Central Command stated the SDF began destroying defenses in the region within 24 hours of an Aug. 21 phone call between Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.

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"This demonstrates SDF's commitment to support implementation of the security mechanism framework," the Central Command post said.

Turkey briefly invaded northeastern Syria in 2016 and 2018 to punish the Kurdish YPG, or People's Protection Units, the main force within the SDF.

Turkey maintains that the YPG is linked to the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which is regarded as a terrorist organization by Ankara.

However, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis repeatedly denied the YPG-PKK link as the U.S. backed the SDF with training and air and artillery support in the long struggle to rout the Islamic State from eastern Syria.

The mostly successful campaign by the SDF against ISIS left the SDF in control of about 9,000 ISIS fighters, who are now being held in makeshift prison camps.

About 2,000 of the prisoners are believed to be foreign nationals. Last week, President Donald Trump, in remarks to reporters at the White House, threatened to have them sent back to the European countries where they hold citizenship.

"We're holding thousands of ISIS fighters right now," Trump said, although the prisoners are in the custody of the SDF.

"And Europe has to take them. And if Europe doesn't take them, I'll have no choice but to release them into the countries from which they came. Which is Germany and France and other places," he said.

The prisoner issue is only one of a series of mounting frustrations for Trump with the U.S. involvement in foreign wars that have led him to press for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan.

In December, Trump's surprise announcement that the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops then in Syria would be pulling out led to Mattis' resignation. Trump eventually relented, and the plan now is to keep several hundred U.S. troops in Syria, split between northeastern Syria and the Al-Tanf garrison near the Jordanian border.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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