Copy of Syria_Trukey_US_24449.jpg-3403b~3 [1]-1570534074391
Turkish armoured vehicles patrol as they conduct a joint ground patrol with American forces in the so-called safe zone on the Syrian side of the border. Image Credit: AP

Ankara: Turkey said on Tuesday it had completed preparations for a military operation in northeast Syria after the US began pulling back troops, opening the way for a Turkish attack on Kurdish-led forces long allied to Washington.

But President Donald Trump warned he would “obliterate” the Nato ally’s economy if it took action in Syria that he considered “off limits” following his decision on Sunday to pull 50 American special forces troops from the border region.

The US move will leave its Kurdish-led partner forces in Syria vulnerable to an incursion by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), which brands them terrorists because of their links to Kurdish militants who have waged a long insurgency in Turkey. “The TSK will never tolerate the establishment of a terror corridor on our borders. All preparations for the operation have been completed,” the Turkish Defence Ministry said on Twitter early on Tuesday.

“It is essential to establish a safe zone/peace corridor to contribute to our region’s peace and stability, and for Syrians to achieve a safe life,” it said.

A Reuters witness said there was no sign of military activity on Tuesday near the Turkish border town of Akcakale, across from Syria’s Tel Abyad. Howitzers were positioned behind earth embankments on the Turkish side of the border, pointed towards Syria. US forces evacuated two observation posts at Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain on Monday, a US official said.

Trump’s warning on Turkey’s economy appeared aimed at placating critics who accused him of abandoning the Syrian Kurds by pulling out US forces.

What will the Turkish offensive look like?

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proposed a large-scale offensive across 480km of the Turkish-Syrian border to drive back the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey considers a terrorist group, and create a “safe zone” for Syrian refugees.

What will happen in the “safe zone”?

Turkey hopes to move more than one million Syrian refugees into the safe zone once it pushes back the SDF.

That would help Erdogan fulfil domestic political pledges to reduce the number of Syrians in Turkey. It also has the strategic benefit of creating a buffer zone of Syrian Arabs between the Kurds of north-east Syria and the Kurds of south-east Turkey. Ankara says it will provide public services in areas it occupies, but many fear that Kurdish populations in Syria will be displaced and the area will be unable to support so many refugees.

What happens to Daesh prisoners in Syria?

Western officials are deeply concerned that the fighting will cause chaos that could allow Daesh prisoners to escape. Some of the prisons holding Daesh suspects may be seized by advancing Turkish forces, but there is little chance of an orderly handover from the Kurds to the Turks who are attacking them.

Other prisons further south will stay in Kurdish hands. However, there may also be problems, there as the SDF is likely to pull its troops away from guard duties to defend its territory. The White House says Turkey will be responsible for all Daesh prisoners in the area.

What will the SDF do now?

The SDF has vowed to fight against the Turkish offensive, but may decide that some tactical retreats are necessary rather than face a full-on assault. SDF fighters have proved themselves adept against Daesh, but they lack the heavy weaponry to confront Turkey’s military power, especially its air force.

Over the longer term, the SDF may decide it has no choice but to align itself more closely with the Assad regime. The two sides have many disagreements, but have a shared goal of keeping the Turks out of north-east Syria.

Is this first time the West has let down the Kurds?

No, the Kurds feel they have been repeatedly betrayed. At the end of the First World War, the allies promised to create a Kurdish state amid the remains of the Ottoman Empire, but later reneged.

The West set up a no-fly zone over Kurdish areas of northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, which allowed the Kurds to set up a semi-autonomous state. The Kurds tried to declare independence in 2017, but the US stood by while Iraqi forces crushed their independence bid.