ISTANBUL • Turkey said yesterday it had completed preparations for a military operation in north-east Syria after the United States began pulling back troops, opening the way for a Turkish attack on Kurdish-led forces long allied to Washington.
But US President Donald Trump warned he would "obliterate" the Nato ally's economy if it took action in Syria that he considered "off limits", following his decision on Sunday to pull at least 50 American special forces troops from the border region. He also insisted that the US had not "abandoned the Kurds".
The US move will leave its Kurdish-led partner forces in Syria vulnerable to an incursion by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). Ankara brands them terrorists because of their links to Kurdish militants who have waged a long insurgency in Turkey.
"The TSK will never tolerate the establishment of a terror corridor on our borders. All preparations for the operation have been completed," the Turkish Defence Ministry said on Twitter yesterday.
A Reuters witness said there was no sign of military activity yesterday near the Turkish border town of Akcakale, across from Syria's Tel Abyad. Howitzers were positioned behind earth embankments on the Turkish side of the border, pointed towards Syria.
US forces evacuated two observation posts at Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn on Monday, a US official said.
Mr Trump's warning on Turkey's economy appeared aimed at placating critics who accused him of abandoning the Syrian Kurds by pulling out US forces. The decision drew criticism from Democrats and a rebuke from some of Mr Trump's fellow Republicans in Congress.
"As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I've done before!)," Mr Trump tweeted.
"We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters," he added later.
His remarks met an angry response in Turkey, including opposition politicians such as Iyi Party leader Meral Aksener, who said it was a day to put aside domestic politics.
"Threatening Turkey's economy is a diplomatic catastrophe," she told her party's lawmakers in Parliament. "Today there is only one party and that is our red (Turkish) flag."
The Kurdish-led forces, who have been Washington's most capable partners in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have denounced the major shift in US policy as a "stab in the back".
Mr Mustafa Bali, an official with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said the continued Turkish military build-up on the border, together with information about a further mobilisation of Turkey-backed Syrian rebels, indicated that "an attack is imminent and we expect it soon".
"Naturally our preparations are along the length of the border with Turkey, and our forces are in a state of readiness," Mr Bali told Reuters.
The US expects Turkey to take responsibility for captive ISIS fighters in north-eastern Syria if Ankara's planned operation seizes areas where the detained militants are held, a senior State Department official said.
The captives are held in SDF facilities south of a safe zone initially proposed by Turkey.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said overnight it was Turkey's fundamental right to take the necessary measures for its national security against terror threats from Syria.
Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's strongest foreign ally, said it was not told in advance by the US or Turkey about any agreements they had about plans to pull American troops from the north-east, adding that it was watching the situation very closely.
Iran, another Assad ally, voiced opposition to any Turkish military operation in Syria.
Britain yesterday said it was "deeply concerned" by Turkey's plans and would not support the move.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey plans to resettle two million refugees in northern Syria, and Turkish media has said the draft resettlement plan involves a 151 billion lira (S$35.7 billion) construction project. Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
A Trump administration official, briefing reporters on a conference call, said the US troops would be redeployed elsewhere in Syria "where they aren't in the crossfire". The US has about 1,000 troops in Syria.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE