- The Washington Times - Monday, October 14, 2019

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops returned to northern Syria on Monday to back up Kurdish forces in their increasingly desperate fight with the Turkish military, marking a major geopolitical turning point for the region and sparking a fresh wave of bipartisan criticism over President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces out of the fight.

With the Pentagon now poised to withdraw all 1,000 of its troops from northern Syria, the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) struck a deal with Mr. Assad and his chief military ally, Russia, for protection from a Turkish assault that began last week and grows more intense each day. The Kurdish-led SDF, which did the bulk of the fighting in Syria in the yearslong fight against the Islamic State, had operated with virtual autonomy in northeastern Syria, but the group’s newfound peace with Mr. Assad strengthens Damascus’ hold over his war-torn country and sets the stage for a bloody battle with Turkey in the key city of Manbij and elsewhere across the nation.

After eight years of civil war, the U.S. move clears the way for the Assad government to reassert control over almost all of the country, with just rebel-held areas in Idlib province holding out.

Mr. Trump made clear that he doesn’t care how the situation shakes out on the ground and has absolutely no preference who comes to the aid of the SDF, even if it’s America’s chief rivals on the global stage.

“After defeating 100% of the ISIS Caliphate, I largely moved our troops out of Syria …,” Mr. Trump said in a Twitter message. “Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”

But after apparently acquiescing last week to Ankara’s incursion into northern Syria, the president escalated his threat Monday afternoon to “swiftly destroy” Turkey’s economy if it proceeds with its invasion. In a statement, he announced that Washington would end trade negotiations with Ankara and impose sanctions on top officials of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path,” the statement said.

U.S. sanctions

The Turkish assault on SDF positions began last week after Mr. Trump announced that the U.S. would pull a few dozen special operations forces from key buffer zones along the Turkey-Syria border. The small number of troops was widely viewed as a deterrent keeping Turkey from launching attacks on the SDF, which Turkey considers to be terrorist allies of a long-running Kurdish separatist movement inside Turkey.

As Turkey’s attack gained steam over the weekend, Mr. Trump went further and instructed the Pentagon to withdraw virtually all of the 1,000 U.S. troops stationed in northern Syria lest they be caught in the crossfire. The president and military officials said they have no appetite to get caught in the middle of a fight between Turkey and the burgeoning SDF-Assad-Russia force.

U.S. troops were still stationed in northern Syria on Monday but were in the process of moving out.

Coordinating now with Mr. Assad’s troops, the SDF is girding for a showdown with Turkey in the strategic city of Manbij, which had been home to U.S. military outposts. Top SDF officials said the agreement with Mr. Assad is for military defense only, suggesting that the Kurds expect to return to semi-autonomous rule once the Turkish advance is repelled.

“There is an understanding between SDF and Damascus — a military agreement only,” Badran Ciya Kurd, a senior Kurdish official, told The Associated Press.

In the U.S., powerful lawmakers are increasingly concerned that Mr. Trump’s decision will ultimately lead to a resurgence of the Islamic State group.

Turkey’s offensive against our Syrian Kurdish partners is jeopardizing years of hard-won progress in the fight against ISIS,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said in a statement.

Other prominent members of Congress are calling on Mr. Trump to rescind an invitation for Mr. Erdogan to visit the White House on Nov. 13.

France, Germany and other key European nations said they will stop selling arms to Turkey unless Ankara immediately ends its attack on the Kurds. European Union and NATO officials warned that the deteriorating situation in Syria could lead to an ISIS resurgence, which would endanger European security.

But Mr. Erdogan countered by flaunting his country’s status as a NATO member, even as the Syria invasion threatens to divide the decades-old alliance.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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