WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - US Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, told reporters traveling with him to a NATO meeting in Brussels that the US will continue its relationship with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“We will not simply cast that organization aside,” Mattis said late on Tuesday.
Speaking the day after Washington and Ankara endorsed a roadmap for the Syrian city of Manbij, Mattis explained that the SDF remains “critical” to ensuring the final defeat of the Islamic State (IS) while emphasizing that military operations are ongoing “right now.”
The SDF is also “critical to preventing the rise of [IS] 2.0,” he affirmed.
To prevent the emergence of another iteration of the terrorist organization, it is crucial to establish stability in those areas liberated from IS control.
Thus, even after the defeat of the physical caliphate, the US relationship with the SDF will endure, Mattis implied, because the US will be relying on it to ensure security and stability in northeastern Syria.
Col. Thomas Veale, Director of Public Affairs for the US-led Coalition against IS, told reporters early on Tuesday that the SDF’s “successes” were “creating the most stable areas” in Syria.
However, Turkey claims that the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which constitutes the leadership of the SDF, is a terrorist group—the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The US rejects that characterization.
Mattis’ comments brought immediate criticism from Turkey. On Wednesday, the pro-government Daily Sabah complained that his statement contradicted the roadmap “by trying to include [the] SDF.”
In a similar vein, Fikri Isik, formerly Turkish Defense Minister and now a deputy prime minister, said in an interview on Turkish television that the US must “cut off all ties completely” with the SDF.
Other points remain in dispute between Washington and Ankara, as well.
Turkish officials say that Manbij is to serve as a model for other Syrian cities, currently administered by the SDF and its partners. US officials deny that.
Asked about that Turkish claim, a senior State Department official responded, “First, I’ve ever heard about it.” Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, told Al-Hurra television that the roadmap applied only to Manbij, and not to other cities in Syria.
Turkish officials maintain that there is a short and specific timeline for the YPG elements of the SDF to leave Manbij and for a transition of authority from the current Manbij Military Council to another group acceptable to Ankara.
The US, however, says there is no timeline for the Manbij transition, and the roadmap’s several phases will be implemented according to conditions on the ground.
Yet other matters remain in dispute.
Turkey is slated to purchase the latest US fighter jet, the F-35. Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a Senate committee that the sale had not yet been decided and remained “a live issue.”
However, Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, told reporters on Monday that Turkey would begin to take delivery of the planes on June 21.
Congress will, most likely, pass legislation before then, making any such sale contingent on a resolution of two other issues, one of which is Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system.
Turkey has signed a deal to purchase the S-400 and plans to take delivery in July 2019.
If that happens, Ankara will be in violation of a US law: Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which calls for imposing sanctions on countries that engage in major transactions with Russia’s defense establishment.
The other issue that Congress is likely to insist be resolved before the F-35 sale can proceed is the fate of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor and longtime resident in Turkey.
Turkey arrested Brunson in 2017 on charges that are “without any factual basis,” Sam Brownback, US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, told Kurdistan 24.
Turkey actually charged Brunson—a Protestant cleric—with being a member of the Gulen movement, headed by the Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey says was behind the 2016 coup attempt.
Expressing a view widely held by other senior figures in the Trump administration, including Donald Trump himself, Brownback described the Turkish charge as “preposterous,” affirming that Brunson is being held as “a political prisoner” for his faith and as a “pawn.”
Although less than a week has passed, already doubts are being raised about whether the US endorsement of the roadmap will do much to ease tensions with Turkey.
Noting the clashing interpretations of the roadmap, the Washington-based Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman suggested those differences “could result in things getting worse, not better.”
Joyce Karam, Washington Bureau Chief for al-Hayat, wrote similarly that the pending Congressional legislation blocking Turkey’s purchase of the F-35, if passed, “will likely add to the current strain on relations between Ankara and Washington.”
Editing by Nadia Riva