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Erdogan says Turkey to delay operation against Kurds in Syria

Turkish president to delay long-touted operation against YPG fighters as he 'cautiously' welcomes US decision to pull troops out of Syria
Erdogan had promised last week to start a Turkish-led operation before US President Donald Trump on Wednesday ordered 2,000 US ground forces to leave Syria (Reuters)

Turkey is to delay a planned military operation against a Kurdish militia in northeast Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said, adding the campaign would start in the coming months.

Erdogan made the comments at a speech in Istanbul on Friday, where he welcomed Washington's decision to withdraw its troops from Syria earlier this week, but said he remained "cautious" because of "past negative experiences" with the US.

The Turkish president has long criticised US policy in Syria, where Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters have made up the main component within the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which has taken the lead on the ground in fighting against the Islamic State (IS) group in the north and east of the country.

In November last year, Turkish officials said US President Donald Trump had promised not to supply weapons to the YPG, although the White House was not as explicit about its intentions, the AFP news agency reported.

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Erdogan said on 12 December that Turkey would start an offensive against the YPG in northern Syria in "the next few days" but on 14 December, he spoke to Trump on the phone.

According to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet on Friday, Trump decided to pull out of Syria during that call after the Turkish president threatened to launch the operation against the YPG.

A similar account was reported by Fox News on Thursday. A senior US official told the US outlet's national security correspondent that Trump decided to pull out after Erdogan warned US troops to "get out of the way".

Hurriyet said Trump asked Erdogan if Turkey would "clean up the remaining Daesh (IS) elements if we withdrew from Syria".

The Turkish president reportedly told Trump that Turkey had cleared IS during its first military operation in northern Syria between 2016 and 2017 and could do so again.

Trump replied by telling him to go ahead and do it.

Erdogan appeared to confirm the details of the conversation on Friday, saying: "Mr Trump told us during our conversation 'will you clean Daesh from here?' We have cleared them and after this, we will clear them. As long as you give us the support in terms of logistics. And have they [the US] started to withdraw? They have."

During the call, Trump ordered his national security adviser John Bolton to "start the work" to prepare withdrawing troops, Hurriyet said.

'We will clear them'

Speaking on Friday, Erdogan said: "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.

"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.

"Of course this is not an open-ended waiting period," he warned, adding that Turkey would clear Syria of the YPG militia as well as IS fighters after the US decision to pull troops out.

"In the next months we will see an operational style aimed at removing YPG and Daesh (IS) elements on the ground in Syria," Erdogan said.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis, who had opposed Trump's decision on Syria, abruptly announced on Thursday he was resigning after meeting with the president.

In a candid letter to Trump, the retired Marine general emphasised the importance of "showing respect" to allies.

The SDF said on Thursday that they would keep fighting IS in eastern Syria after their US allies announced their withdrawal, but warned that it could be halted if Turkey attacks them.

Turkey regards the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).