The United States has criticized clashes between Turkish troops and Kurdish-led rebels in northern Syria — the sharpest rebuke of its ally since Turkey resumed fighting with Kurdish forces in the region a year ago.
“We want to make clear that we find these clashes — in areas where #ISIL is not located — unacceptable and a source of deep concern,” Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the coalition to counter ISIS, said on his Twitter account, citing a statement from the Pentagon.
Turkey views Syrian Kurdish militants as “terrorists” and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Sunday to continue “fight until we root out” the Democratic Union Party, the PYD. Turkish officials claim that the army’s recent incursion into northern Syria is designed to fight against all terrorist groups, including ISIS and the Kurdish YPG militias, Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey and the U.S. often publicly disagreed on the role of Syrian Kurdish militants in fight against ISIS, but Monday’s statement is yet the strongest discontent expressed by Washington since Ankara started frequently shelling Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria.
The U.S. considers Kurdish militias as the most effective partners on the ground fighting against ISIS and tries to walk a fine line in balancing between its two allies, Kurds and Turkey. Washington was forced to choose between its two allies as the fighting raged south of Jarablus, with fears that anti-ISIS efforts will be damaged as Turkey heads into a different adventure in Syria.
When Turkey started Operation Shield Euphrates last week, it claimed that the military incursion to clear the Turkish-Syrian border from “terrorists” is coordinated with the U.S. With Turkey’s air cover, moderate Syrian rebels drove out ISIS from Jarablus without a major fight. Since then, Turkey reinforced its military presence in the area and started bombing Kurdish-led forces, apparently without Washington’s blessing. Over the weekend, Turkish tanks, coupled with units from Syrian Democratic Forces, started to clear villages from Kurds one by one.
McGurk made it clear that the U.S. was “not involved in these activities,” and that they were “not coordinated with U.S. forces, and we do not support them.”
He said the U.S. is actively engaged to facilitate such deconfliction and unity of focus on ISIL, which “remains a lethal and common threat.” He added that the U.S. calls on all armed actors to stand down and take appropriate measures to deconflict and open channels of communication.
A Syrian rebel commander reportedly said over the weekend that the rebels and the Turkish army are eyeing on Manbij, a town recently liberated from ISIS.
The U.S. long insisted that Turkey’s own fight with the PKK was well-founded, given its real threat to Turkish security services. But Washington maintained that Syrian Kurdish militants are focused on fighting against ISIS and pose no threat to Turkey. A well-circulated video, however, showed Kurdish forces targeted a Turkish tank, killing one Turkish soldier. That incident reinforced Turkey’s determination to move forward in eliminating the Kurdish forces from the Manbij area.
On Monday, President Erdogan said in a statement that his country does not distinguish between terrorist organizations and it is determined to take measures both at home and neighboring countries. He claimed that the Jarablus operation was kicked off in cooperation with the anti-ISIS coalition and that the military operation in Syria will “continue until Daesh, PKK and its Syrian offshoot YPG terror groups are no longer threats to our citizens.” Daesh is the Arabic acronym of ISIS.
Turkey declared that Euphrates river as the final line Kurds could advance toward the West. After Kurdish-led rebels liberated Manbij earlier this month, a town that sits between two Kurdish territories close to the Turkish border, Washington and Ankara asked them to go back to east of the river. European Union Minister Omer Celik said on Monday that Turkey will fight against Kurdish forces if they are still stationed in the west bank of Euphrates.
PYD’s co-chair Asya Abdullah said on Monday that it is not up to Turkey to decide if Kurds will retreat back to east of Euphrates or not. She argued that YPG militias have already retreated, but also vowed that cities liberated from ISIS will “fight back” if Turkey attacks them. She asserted that Turkey is occupying northern Syria, but can’t stay there because local people don’t want Turkey’s presence.
Numan Kurtulmus, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, told a news conference on Monday that Turkey is not an “occupying country” and that Ankara even informed Damascus about the Jarablus operation via Moscow.
The Syrian government, on the other hand, sent two letters to U.N., describing Turkey’s military incursion as an assault on the country’s territorial integrity and said the fight against terrorism should have been done in coordination with Damascus.
White House reiterated Pentagon’s statement in Monday’s press briefing, saying that the U.S. does not support Turkey’s move toward south of Jarablus and its engagement with US-backed forces.