WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – The US has responded strongly to a threat issued early on Wednesday by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to attack Syrian Kurdistan, where US forces, in partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have been fighting the Islamic State (IS).
“Unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as US personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern,” both the Pentagon and State Department stated later that day.
As the Pentagon and State Department each affirmed, “We would find any such actions unacceptable.”
Speaking to a Turkish Defense Industry Summit in Ankara, Erdogan had said, “We will start the operation [in the area] east of the Euphrates in a few days to save it from the separatist terrorist organization.”
By “east of the Euphrates,” Erdogan meant northeast Syria, while “the separatist terrorist organization” was a reference to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which provides the leadership for the SDF and which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.
Ankara has long objected to the US alliance with the YPG, and the US has tried in a variety of ways to address Turkish concerns.
The latest such US effort has been to establish observation posts along the border between Syria and Turkey. On November 21, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis announced that US forces would create such positions.
Turkey’s attacks across the border into SDF-controlled territory had repeatedly drawn Kurdish fighters away from the battle against IS. The observation posts were intended to end that problem, while at the same time reassuring Turkey, Mattis explained.
Yet Ankara’s position has remained unchanged. In a December 7 meeting with Amb. James Jeffrey, US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, Turkey’s Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, repeated his country’s opposition to the observation posts, even demanding that the US end its relationship with the YPG.
Erdogan’s warning of an imminent attack represented an escalation of Turkey’s position, however. Most likely, Erdogan was testing the waters, seeing how the US would react.
The strong US response cited above, which Pentagon Spokesman, Commander Sean Robertson provided to Kurdistan 24, also included a caution that the fight against IS was “not over.”
“Coalition forces are working closely with the [SDF] who are in the midst of offensive operations against ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley,” Robertson said.
He also affirmed that “coordination and consultation between the US and Turkey is the only approach to address issues of security concern in this area.”
“Turkey is a NATO ally for over six decades and a key partner in the Global Coalition to Defeat [IS],” Robertson stated. “We have solemn obligations to one another’s security” and “we are fully committed to Turkey’s border security.”
Some analysts, however, question whether Erdogan has not effected a fundamental change in Turkey’s strategic orientation.
“There’s a lot of question about Turkey’s NATO membership,” David Phillips, Director of Columbia University’s Program on Peace-building and Rights, recently told Kurdistan 24.
“NATO is not just a security alliance. It’s an alliance of countries that share values, and Turkey is an Islamist country,” he said, suggesting that Erdogan’s political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), “is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
“If they applied to join NATO today, they’d be rejected,” Phillips concluded.
Editing by Nadia Riva