Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey on October 21, 2018.

Cem Oksuz | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Turkey is preparing to launch a military operation in northern Syria, and the United States will withdraw its troops in the area ahead of the long-planned attack, a statement from White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said.

“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” the statement late Sunday night said, adding that President Donald Trump had spoken to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan by phone. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.”

The terror group ISIS, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, swept across Syria and Iraq in 2014 and captured vast swathes of territory in the region in the ensuing years.

U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in northern Syria helped retake some of that territory, but Turkey has always rejected the legitimacy of the Kurdish presence in Syria. Ankara has long fought Kurdish rebels within its own borders and regularly targets Kurdish groups in Iraq.

In January, Turkey said it will go ahead with its military offensive against Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria regardless of whether the U.S. withdraws its troops from the country. Ankara has already amassed thousands of Turkish troops along its border with Syria. 

Days later, Trump warned Turkey, a NATO ally, it could face devastating sanctions if it attacked Kurds after U.S. troops pull out of Syria.

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The latest statement from the White House made no mention of the sanctions, and only said: “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial ‘Caliphate’ by the United States.”

The apparent hands-off approach from Washington signifies a sharp turnaround in Trump’s position, which earlier this year seemed to hold to the conventional U.S. policy of supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who suffered heavy losses in the fight against ISIS.

Reuters said the two leaders also discussed Ankara’s plans to create a “safe zone” east of the Euphrates River in Syria. The safe zone in northern Syria is aimed at flushing out terrorist elements from the border, and ensuring the safe return of refugees to Syria, the news agency quoted Erdogan’s spokesperson as saying.