A shop in Manbij, north Syria, was open last March 28. Syria’s military announced it has taken control Manbij, where Turkey has threatened an offensive. Image Credit: AP

Ankara/Washington: President Donald Trump’s declaration in a phone call with Tayyip Erdogan that he was pulling US troops from Syria has stunned Turkey and left it scrambling to respond to the changing battlefield on its southern border.

In the phone call two weeks ago, Trump had been expected to deliver a standard warning to the Turkish president over his plan to launch a crossborder attack targeting US-backed Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, US officials say.

Instead, in the course of the conversation Trump reshaped US policy in the Middle East, abandoning a quarter of Syrian territory and handing Ankara the job of finishing off Daesh in Syria.

“Trump asked: ‘If we withdraw our soldiers, can you clean up ISIS (Daesh)?’”, a Turkish official told Reuters. He said Erdogan replied that Turkish forces were up to the task.

“Then you do it,” Trump told him abruptly.

To his national security adviser John Bolton, also on the call, Trump said: “Start work for the withdrawal of US troops from Syria.”

“I have to say it was an unexpected decision. The word ‘surprise’ is too weak to describe the situation,” said the official, one of five Turkish sources who spoke to Reuters about the Dec. 14 call between the two leaders.

Trump’s decision was also a shock in Washington, where senior administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, tried for days to change the president’s mind, US

officials said.

When Trump made clear he would not back down, Mattis and a senior official coordinating the fight against Daesh, Brett McGurk, both resigned.

On a visit to a US air base in Iraq this week, Trump said that military commanders had repeatedly requested extensions for the 2,000 US troops in Syria - requests that he finally turned down because he said Daesh was largely beaten.

“We’ve knocked them silly. I will tell you I’ve had some very good talks with President Erdogan who wants to knock them out also, and he’ll do it,” he told American troops.

For Turkey, Trump’s decision offers opportunity and risk.

Ankara has complained bitterly for years that the United States, a NATO ally, had chosen the Kurdish YPG militia as its main partner on the ground in Syria against Daesh.

Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist group, inseparable from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey in which 40,000 people have been killed.

The US withdrawal potentially frees Turkey’s military to push the YPG back from 500 km of border without risking a confrontation with American forces. It also removes a main cause of this year’s diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

But it also opens up an area of Syria far larger than anything Turkey had expected to fill, potentially pitting it against not just Kurdish forces but also the Damascus government—which is committed to regaining control of all of Syria - and its Russian and Iranian backers.

“Erdogan got more than he bargained for,” said Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Programme at the Washington Institute.

“He had asked the US to drop the YPG, but not withdraw from Syria”.

Erdogan has for years backed rebels who once hoped to topple Bashar Al Assad, but the Syrian president’s survival has been assured by support from Tehran and Moscow even though the north and east - including Syrian oilfields - remain beyond Al Assad’s control for now.

Russia to host summit

As it takes stock of the new challenge, Turkey is launching intensive talks with Washington and Moscow.

Ankara expects US military officials to visit within days, as well as Bolton and possibly the US special Syria envoy, James Jeffrey.

Turkey’s intelligence chief and defence and foreign ministers are also due in Moscow on Saturday, the spokesman for Erdogan’s AK Party said.

Meanwhile, Moscow will early next year host the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey to discuss the Syrian conflict, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said Friday, after the United States announced it was withdrawing troops from the country.

“It’s our turn to host the summit... around the first week of the year. This will depend on the schedules of the presidents,” Mikhail Bogdanov was cited as saying by Interfax news agency.

The meeting will be the latest step in the Astana peace process - set up in early 2017 by Russia and Iran, who support President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and opposition backer Turkey.

The Astana process was launched after Russia’s military intervention in Syria tipped the balance in the Damascus regime’s favour. It has gradually eclipsed an earlier UN-sponsored negotiations framework known as the Geneva process.

The last meeting between Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan took place in Iran in September with the fate of the rebel-held Idlib province dominating the agenda.

US President Donald Trump in a shock announcement recently said he was pulling out some 2,000 American soldiers from Syria, claiming the Islamic State jihadists had been defeated.