U.S. withdrawal from Syria presents opportunity and risk for Turkey - Haaretz

U.S. President Donald Trump reshaped U.S. policy in the Middle East by handing Ankara the job of finishing off Islamic State, in Syria in a move that poses both a risk and opportunity for Turkey, Israeli Haaretz newspaper wrote.

Trump was expected to warn the Turkish president over his plan to launch a third crossborder attack targeting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, namely the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria, during a phone call two weeks ago. However, something unexpected happened, Haaretz said.

Trump is reported to have asked if Ankara can ‘’clean up ISIS?’’ if the U.S. withdraws, with Turkey’s strongman responding  Turkish forces were up to the task.

The decision was a shock to both Turkey and Washington.

"I have to say it was an unexpected decision. The word 'surprise' is too weak to describe the situation," Haaretz quoted one Turkish official as saying.

In Washington, senior administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, tried for days to change the president's mind, Haaretz wrote; however, Trump made clear he would not back down. Mattis and a senior official coordinating the fight against Islamic State, Brett McGurk, both resigned within days.

For Ankara, Trump's decision offers both an opportunity and a risk, Haaretz wrote, noting that the withdrawal ‘’potentially frees Turkey's military to push the YPG back from 500 km of border without risking a confrontation with American forces. It also removes a main cause of this year's diplomatic crisis between the two countries.’’

However, it also opens up an area of Syria far larger than what Ankara had expected to fill, ‘’potentially pitting it against not just Kurdish forces but also the Damascus government - which is committed to regaining control of all of Syria - and its Russian and Iranian backers.

The YPG on Friday asked the Syrian government to take over the town of Manbij, which the Kurdish militia currently controls with U.S. support, to protect it from Turkish attack,’’ the article stressed.

"Erdogan got more than he bargained for," Haaretz quoted Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Program at the Washington Institute, as saying "He had asked the U.S. to drop the YPG, but not withdraw from Syria."

Turkey's intelligence chief and defence and foreign ministers are set to visit Moscow on Saturday to discuss Syria as the U.S. is drafts plans that could see a withdrawal over the course of several months.

But Ankara and its Syrian rebel allies alone do not have the capacity to take over the whole region which the United States is abandoning, according to Çağaptay and Ankara's priority may be to secure its southern frontier.