American troops began withdrawing from northeast Syria on Monday ahead of a Turkish invasion that Kurdish fighters say will overturn the victory over Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS).
US forces “will not support or be involved in the [Turkish] operation” and “will no longer be in the immediate area”, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.
It was not clear whether that meant the United States would withdraw its 1,000 or so troops completely from northern Syria.
“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria,” said the statement.
A US official told Reuters news agency American forces had evacuated two observation posts at Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain in northeast Syria, along the Turkish border. Other US troops in the region were still in position for now, the official said.
The withdrawal marks a major shift in US policy and effectively abandons an American ally in the battle against ISIL, which took over swathes of Syria before being defeated a year ago.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday his army was ready to launch operations against Kurdish fighters in Syria at any moment following the US announcement.
“There is a phrase that we always say: we can come any night without warning,” Erdogan told reporters in televised remarks. “It is absolutely out of the question for us to further tolerate the threats from these terrorist groups.”
Syria’s Kurds warned on Monday a Turkish military invasion would spark a major ISIL resurgence and vowed to battle Turkey’s military.
Such an operation would reverse years of successful Kurdish-led operations to defeat the armed group and allow some of its surviving leaders to come out of hiding, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said in a statement.