Tensions are rising between Washington and Ankara as the Pentagon threatens Turkey over the Kurds holding unto territories in northeast Syria.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday any Turkish operation into northern Syria would be “unacceptable”. He confirmed that the United States would prevent any unilateral incursions by Ankara.
On Sunday, President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey, which already has a foothold in northwest Syria, will carry out a military operation in a Kurdish-controlled area east of the Euphrates in northern Syria.
Esper told reporters traveling with him to Japan:
Clearly we believe any unilateral action by them (Turkey) would be unacceptable. What we’re going to do is prevent unilateral incursions that would upset, again, these mutual interests… the United States, Turkey and the SDF share with regard to northern Syria.
The SDF stands for the Syrian Democratic Forces. With U.S. backing, the SDF, which includes the Kurdish YPG militia, have taken control over the last four years of much of northeastern Syria from Islamic State militants. Historically, Ankara sees the YPG as a terrorist organization; exactly the way the United States sees Islamic Jihad as terrorism.
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Esper said the United States did not have any “ambition” to abandon the SDF. He, however, stopped short of guaranteeing that the United States would protect them in case of a Turkish operation.
A team from the Pentagon was in Turkey to speak with Turkish officials about the issue. Esper said he was hopeful that Washington and Ankara could reach an agreement.
Esper suggested that a Turkish operation into northern Syria could affect the SDF’s focus on ensuring Islamic State did not retake the territory it once held in Syria. He added that it might also affect the ability of the SDF to hold the thousands of alleged Islamic State fighters in detention.
Erdogan delayed the Turkish campaign for months while talking to Washington. It aims at evicting Kurdish YPG forces from a string of border town in Raqqa and Hasaka provinces.
Ankara has accused Washington of stalling progress on setting up a safe zone inside Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey. The zone would be free from any Kurdish YPG militia.
This week, Erdogan said both Russia and the United States had been told of the planner operation. Erdogan did not say when it would begin. It would mark the third Turkish incursion into Syria in as many years.
Ties between the two NATO allies have been strained over a host of issues. To include the United States’ removal of Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program after Ankara bought and took delivery of Russian S-400 missile defenses that Washington sees as a threat.