Turkey and the United States were on a collision course Tuesday as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to “eliminate” a Kurdish militia in northern Syria – a move deemed “unacceptable” by the Pentagon.
Erdogan has repeatedly warned that it is preparing an offensive into Syria against the mainly-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which the U.S. has supported as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main fighting force against Islamic State.
“Turkey has the right to eliminate all threats against its national security,” he said in a televised speech in Ankara on August 6.
“God willing, we will carry the process started with [previous offensives into Syria] to the next stage very soon.”
U.S. officials have been locked in talks with their counterparts in the Turkish capital since early Monday, trying to hash out a buffer zone deal that would persuade Turkey to hold off on a military attack.
“Clearly we believe any unilateral action by them would be unacceptable,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in Tokyo on a trip through Asia.
“And so what we are trying to do now is work out with them an arrangement to address their concerns and I am hopeful we will get there,” he said.
“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,” Reuters reported Esper as saying.
So far, Turkey has been unimpressed with U.S. “safe zone” proposals which it says do not keep the YPG far enough away from the Turkish border.
It sees the YPG as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has fought a bloody separatist insurgency inside Turkey for the past 35 years.
“Turkey expects steps from the U.S. befitting of a NATO ally and strategic partner,” Erdogan said Tuesday.
“Drying up the terrorist swamp in northern Syria is our top priority.”
‘Erdogan is serious’
Turkish media outlets have often shown images in recent weeks of military convoys heading for the border area, carrying equipment and fighting units.
Turkey has twice carried out unilateral offensives into northern Syria against ISIS and the YPG, in 2016 and 2018 respectively.
Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies took control of Efrin in northern Syria last spring after a months-long campaign. Syrian Kurdish officials have vowed to retake Efrin, which is part of their project in North and East Syria, in an area Kurds refer to as Rojava, meaning ‘west.’
Aldar Xelil, a top foreign affairs official in the de facto autonomous region of northeast Syria, told AFP on Monday that “Erdogan is serious and will embark on an attack at the first opportunity.”
“If Turkey is not deterred and a consensus is not reached for an international decision to prevent it, it will definitely be on the offensive.”
Xelil said the Kurds were “flexible” on the peace talks, and had offered a 5 km (three-mile) buffer zone, but that this had been rejected by Turkey, which wants to push the YPG much further back from the border.
Washington could stop any “attack with a single word … but it seems they don’t want to pressure Turkey more than needed,” he said.