The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria angers, worries Europeans

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters gather near the Syrian-Turkish border north of Aleppo. (Nazeer Al-Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

PARIS — European officials were angered and taken aback Monday by the Trump administration’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the Syrian-Turkish border, as Turkey prepares a long-awaited offensive on U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in the region.

“Any unilateral action could have significant humanitarian consequences and would not provide the conditions for the safe and voluntary return of refugees to their areas of origin,” the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “It would undermine the stability of this region and our direct efforts on the ground.”

Norbert Röttgen, head of the foreign affairs committee in the German parliament, was more direct. The U.S. “troop withdrawal from northern Syria constitutes another abrupt and destabilizing foreign policy move by the United States,” he said.

“This damages U.S. credibility and stability in the entire region. The planned Turkish offensive is contrary to international law and further militarizes the Kurdish conflict,” he added.

“Renewed armed hostilities in the northeast will not only exacerbate civilian suffering and lead to massive displacement but will also risk severely undermining current political efforts,” European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters Monday, stopping short of mentioning President Trump by name.

While defending the withdrawal decision, Trump lashed out at European allies early Monday, taking aim at their reluctance to repatriate citizens who went to fight for the Islamic State in Syria and now are imprisoned in Kurdish-controlled camps near the Syrian border.

“Europe did not want them back, they said you keep them USA,” Trump tweeted. “I said ‘NO, we did you a great favor and now you want us to hold them in U.S. prisons at tremendous cost. They are yours for trials.’”

President Trump's plan, announced Oct. 7, to pull U.S. troops from Syria provoked rebukes from Republican members of Congress. (Video: Reuters)

European politicians have been hesitant to bring back people who might then pose a terrorism threat. And European leaders fear their national courts won’t be able to convict former fighters because of a lack of evidence or the inapplicability of domestic laws.

“The Europeans especially, and the international community more broadly, have shirked this responsibility,” said Tobias Schneider, a research fellow with the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute.

In Paris and Berlin on Monday, officials disputed Trump’s characterization and argued that a U.S. withdrawal — along with a Turkish offensive on Kurdish forces — could permit former Islamic State fighters to continue terrorist activities.

Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative parliamentary bloc, rejected Trump’s criticism, saying: “I consider the president’s analysis to be wrong. Of course, Germany is ready to take responsibility for Islamic State fighters from Germany.”

“Terrorist fighters in detention, including those of foreign nationality, should be tried where they committed their crimes,” the French Foreign Ministry statement said. “This judgment and their safe detention in northeastern Syria is also a security imperative to prevent them from reinforcing the ranks of terrorist groups.”

In Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed skepticism about whether the United States would fully withdraw. “After all, you should rely on statements made by Washington officials to begin with and draw your conclusions from official statements,” he said, referring to the sometimes contradictory assessments of Syria policy offered by Trump and his subordinates.

“It is important to avoid any action which may create impediments to the Syrian settlement process,” Peskov added when asked by reporters if he expected the Syrian Kurds to reach out to Damascus in advance of any Turkish military operation.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also weighed in, calling the United States “an irrelevant occupier” in Syria and saying it was “futile to seek its permission or rely on it for security.”

Iran and Russia support the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, which has been battling an array of forces fighting under various banners since 2011. More than half a million people have been killed in the brutal conflict, rights groups have estimated, and millions of others have fled their homes.

“If we have a catastrophic, disorganized, chaotic return of [Islamic State] returnees because the Kurds will no longer be in a position to hold them, or no longer feel an obligation to hold them, that of course will make Mr. Trump a little more unpopular still,” said François Heisbourg, a former French presidential national security adviser.

“This guy has used this as a threat, and then he executes that threat. It’s an absolutely dastardly thing to do.”

Noack reported from Munich. Michael Birnbaum in Brussels and Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.

Read more:

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news