Turkey is ready to take over Manbij, a Kurdish-controlled town in Syria, “without delay,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the US leader, denouncing a suicide blast that killed four US Americans as a provocation.
In a phone call late on Sunday, Erdogan told President Donald Trump that Turkish forces are poised to assume security functions in Manbij immediately.
Erdogan argued the terrorist attack last week that claimed the lives of four Americans, including two US troops, was a deliberate provocation aimed at stalling the withdrawal of US forces from Syria, announced by Trump last month.
Two service members, as well as a civilian and a contractor, were killed after a bomb detonated inside a cafe in Manbij last Wednesday. On Saturday, Trump flew to the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to attend a ceremony to receive the remains of four slain Americans and speak with their relatives.
Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, prompting those opposed to the decision to again question its timing.
During the call, Erdogan extended his condolences to Trump. He reiterated that Ankara will not allow US-backed Kurdish YPG militia, which it considers an extension of Kurdistan’s Workers’ Party (PKK), to undermine security in northeastern Syria.
Turkey views both ISIS and the YPG, a backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as terrorist organizations that must be annihilated and driven out of Turkish borders.
Erdogan had previously warned Trump against backtracking on his pledge to withdraw some 2,000 US forces out of Syria, arguing that otherwise it would mean that ISIS had won.
Trump has taken heat both from the Democrats and from his own Republican Party for abruptly announcing a pullout of troops following a call with Erdogan in December.
Trump reportedly made the decision to leave Syria during the call with his Turkish counterpart to the complete shock of his advisers and military brass, sparking a chain of resignations, including that of US defense secretary James Mattis.
Trump’s promise to get out of Syria made Erdogan delay the planned operation to kick YPG units out of the area east of the Euphrates River.
However, Ankara hinted that its patience is wearing thin and might run out if the US forces linger.
“If the [pullout] is put off with ridiculous excuses like Turks are massacring Kurds, which do not reflect the reality, we will implement this decision,” Turkish Foreign Ministry Mevlut Cavusoglu said earlier this month.
The US military is currently working on security arrangements with the Turkish forces to create a buffer zone between Turkey and the Kurdish fighters. The Kurds, meanwhile, invited the Syrian government to take over and have reportedly begun to leave the area. Erdogan, however, denied that the Kurdish units abandoned Manbij, calling the invitation a “psyop.”
Meanwhile, Trump faces growing pressure at home over his plans to extricate troops from Syria. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), one of the most vocal critics of the move, warned on Saturday that the withdrawal could backfire and turn Syria into “Iraq on steroids.”