WASHINGTON—U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that Turkey soon will mount a major incursion into northern Syria and trigger a clash with Kurdish fighters, an action that would likely prompt the Trump administration to remove all American forces from Syria to avoid the conflict.
Because a U.S. pullout would essentially end the fight against Islamic State there, it could set back ongoing efforts to undercut the group, which lost its so-called caliphate but remains what many U.S. officials consider a viable terrorist network that still can stage attacks against the U.S. and its allies and interests.
Turkey wants to resettle up to two million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey in Syrian border towns that would be cleared of Kurdish forces known as the YPG, a group Turkey considers to be a terrorist affiliate of the Turkey-based PKK.
But while Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, views the Kurdish military organization as a terrorist group, U.S. officials say Kurdish fighters have spearheaded the fight to defeat Islamic State across Syria.
Washington has attempted to quell Turkish concerns by conducting joint military patrols in two Syrian cities and holding talks on Turkey’s request for a 300-mile safe zone along the border between the two countries.
Zones of Influence
Turkey wants to seize control of a 300-mile strip in northeastern Syria for what it calls a ‘safe zone’ to relocate up to 2 million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey.
Areas of control, Sept. 30
Kurdish forces and allies
Turkish army/opposition forces
U.S. officials said this week that they have seen mounting evidence that Turkey is preparing to insert forces into northeastern Syria, a move that could place the remaining American force at risk.
“It’s a perfect storm, it’s really ugly. There may just be no choice but to leave,” said one U.S. official of the dilemma American policy makers may confront in coming days.
In Ankara, government officials said they were frustrated by the slow pace of joint efforts to create safe areas for refugees in northeastern Syria. The U.S. hasn’t formally warned Turkey about a possible withdrawal from Syria, one person familiar with the matter said. If the U.S. conveyed such a message, the person added, it would be interpreted as “a perception ploy,” a way to tell the Turks that they could be worse off dealing alone with the Assad regime, and its main backer, Russia.
Turkish officials didn’t respond to questions about their military plans. On Tuesday, Turkish President
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
told parliament’s opening session that his country had no choice but to act unilaterally to create a safe zone in northern Syria.
“We have not achieved any of the results we desired,” Mr. Erdogan said. “Turkey cannot lose even a single day on this issue. There is no other choice but to act on our own.”