Turkey poised to start Syria incursion, White House says

(Updates with details, comments throughout)

Turkey will soon launch a military incursion into northeast Syria and U.S. forces will not take part in the operation, the White House said.

The United States military will not be in the immediate area when the incursion takes place, the White House press office said in a statement on Sunday. It followed a phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

"Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” the White House said. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved.”

The statement indicated that Trump may have given a green light to Turkish forces to advance against Kurdish forces in Syria who have been key to the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State (ISIS). Washington has opposed any unilateral Turkish incursion, saying it would undermine the battle against ISIS and lead to further destabilisation of the war-torn region.

A military operation targeting Kurdish militia in Syria could take place any day, Erdoğan said on Saturday, citing insufficient progress on an agreement between Ankara and Washington to establish a "safe zone" on the Syrian border.

Turkey regards the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a terrorist organisation because of its links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey has been fighting for decades. The YPG controls large swathes of northern Syria and spearheaded the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against ISIS.

Turkey will be taking over the detention of ISIS fighters held in the region, the White House said.

“The United States Government has pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused,” it said. “The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer.”

A unilateral Turkish operation in Syria risks direct confrontation with the SDF, which has said it is ready to defend its territories and turn any incursion into an "all-out war".

Erdoğan has accepted an invitation by Trump to visit Washington next month, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said, citing the phone call between the two leaders.

On Monday, Erdoğan said U.S. forces have started to withdraw from the region.

“After our conversation last night, the process of withdrawal has started," state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Erdoğan as saying before departing on a visit to Serbia.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Monday that Turkey would respect Syria’s borders despite the plans to send troops there. It was seeking to ensure its security, he said.

"From the start of the Syria war, we have supported that country's territorial integrity and will continue to do so from now on,” Çavuşoğlu said on Twitter. “We will contribute to bringing safety, peace and stability to Syria,"

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalın said Turkey was not after territorial gain but rather aimed to clear "terrorist elements" from its border and return refugees safely to Syria.

The United Nations urged Turkey to protect civilian lives should it proceed with its plans unilaterally for a safe zone. It recalled a "bitter history" of such projects in places such as Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosniaks were killed in 1995 during the Bosnian War despite the establishment of a safe area backed by the UN.

“We are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” the UN's humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, said in Geneva.