December 21, 2018 / 11:41 AM / 3 months ago

Turkey to delay Syria operation, Erdogan welcomes U.S. decision to withdraw troops

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that Turkey would postpone a military operation against Syrian Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria as he “cautiously” welcomed Washington’s decision to withdraw its troops in the area.

FILE PHOTO - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a joint news conference with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani (not pictured) after their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, December 20, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The surprise announcement from U.S. President Donald Trump this week that Washington would withdraw its roughly 2,000 troops has upended a pillar of American policy in the Middle East. Critics say it will make it harder to find a diplomatic solution to Syria’s seven-year-old civil war.

But for Ankara, the step removes a source of friction with the United States. Erdogan has long castigated his NATO ally over northeastern Syria, where Washington has backed Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters.

Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organisation and an offshoot of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), fighting for Kurdish autonomy across the border on Turkish soil.

Erdogan announced plans last week to start an operation east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria to push the YPG out of the area, which it largely controls.

This week he said the campaign could come at any moment. But on Friday, he cited the United States’ move and a phone call with Trump as a reason to wait.

“We had decided last week to launch a military incursion in the east of the Euphrates river ... Our phone call with President Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials and statements by the United States, have led us to wait a little longer,” he said in a speech in Istanbul.

“We have postponed our military operation against the east of the Euphrates river until we see on the ground the result of America’s decision to withdraw from Syria.”

Erdogan said this was not an “open-ended waiting period”.

Turkey has repeatedly voiced frustration over what it says is the slow implementation of a deal with Washington to pull YPG fighters out of Manbij, a town in mainly Arab territory west of the Euphrates.

“We have the Manbij road map, we discussed whether we can implement this by the time that they (U.S. forces) withdraw,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.

“So many issues that Turkey and the United States should coordinate, and there shouldn’t be any vacuum in the country that terrorist groups might also fill.”

Additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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