US warns Ankara, amid Turkish force build-up and talks on Syria

The US has warned Turkey against any cross-border attack into northeastern Syria, as Washington and Ankara hold discussions about the security situation there.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - The US has warned Turkey against any cross-border attack into northeastern Syria, as Washington and Ankara hold discussions about the security situation there.

On Friday evening, CNN’s Ryan Browne tweeted, “The US military is closely watching the Syria-Turkish border due to growing concerns US troops in NE Syria will be caught up in a potential cross border Turkish military operation targeting Kurds in the coming days.”

Pentagon Spokesperson, Cmdr Sean Robertson, appeared to confirm at least the general gist of Browne’s tweet on Saturday. “Unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as US personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern,” Robertson told Kurdistan 24. “We would find any such actions unacceptable.”

Indeed, late on Thursday, Turkey’s Daily Sabah, a pro-government paper, reported that Turkey had concentrated forces near the Syrian border, “including heavy weapons, armored vehicles and tanks.” Over “50 tanks and artillery batteries were deployed over the last two days” across the border from Tal Abyad, in Syria, it said.

But as Robertson explained, the US is also conducting “intensive discussions with Turkey on a security mechanism to address their legitimate security concerns.”

“We believe this dialogue is the only way to secure the border area in a sustainable manner,” he continued, “and believe that uncoordinated military operations will undermine that shared interest.”

Robertson also listed US goals in Syria, which include “addressing Turkey’s legitimate security concerns and protecting our partners in the fight against ISIS.”

The Turkish build-up, as well as the US warning, coincide roughly with Ankara’s announcement on Friday that it had begun to take delivery of the S-400, Russia’s most advanced air defense system.

US officials have been adamant that Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 would have negative consequences, including termination of its involvement with the F-35, America’s newest fighter jet, as well as punitive economic measures under Combatting America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA.)

On Friday, following the Turkish announcement, the Pentagon twice said it would hold a press briefing on the issue, while Acting Secretary of Defense, Dr. Mark Esper, told journalists that more information would be forthcoming, after he spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar. Yet the press briefing was cancelled and no further information was provided, creating the impression that Washington had been unprepared for the Turkish announcement.

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However, the US warning to Turkey, along with the Turkish build-up of forces, raise another possibility: Turkey has essentially threatened that if measures are taken against it for the S-400, it will launch a cross-border attack into eastern Syria, where the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), supported by US Special Forces, fought and defeated the Islamic State.

On Saturday, the Turkish press provided more details of the 30 minute phone conversation that Esper and Akar held on Friday. Akar emphasized that the Turkish army is “the only military force that is ready, competent and appropriate for the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria,” it said, citing Turkey’s Defense Ministry.

To protect its territory and people “in the face of intensive attacks from the Syrian border, Turkey would have to take necessary measures,” Akar reportedly told Esper.

A former US intelligence official suggested to Kurdistan 24 that Russia was likely behind Ankara’s tough stance. Selling the S-400 to Turkey is extremely important to Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said.

“It is part of a much broader strategy against the US and NATO,” he added. “Russian advisers will accompany the missiles,” he continued, and they will seek access to the F-35. If they succeed, “our technological advantage in stealth technology, air-to-air combat, and air-to-ground combat will evaporate quickly.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on Tuesday to confirm Esper as Defense Secretary. Both the Republican Chairman of the committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe (Idaho), and the ranking Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed (Rhode Island), issued a statement on Friday, in which they affirmed, “There must be consequences for President Erdogan’s misguided S-400 acquisition, a troubling signal of strategic alignment with Putin’s Russia and a threat to the F-35 program.”

Almost certainly, the issue of Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 and the US response will arise in Esper’s confirmation hearing.