US: 'We will not abandon the Kurds;' calls on Turkey to stop attack in Syria

Amid mounting bipartisan criticism of the limited US response to Turkey’s cross-border attack into northeast Syria, the US signaled a major shift in policy on Friday.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Amid mounting bipartisan criticism of the limited US response to Turkey’s cross-border attack into northeast Syria, the US signaled a major shift in policy on Friday. 

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The shift was signaled in briefings given by senior officials, first by the Pentagon and then by the Treasury Department.

At the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, strongly and publicly expressed their opposition to the assault, while affirming that the US would not abandon its Kurdish allies.

Subsequently, the Treasury Department announced that President Donald Trump would be signing a new executive order “to dissuade Turkey from any further offensive military action in northeast Syria.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters the order involved “very significant new sanctions authorities that can be targeted at any person associated with the government of Turkey.”

At the Pentagon, where officials spoke at noon, Esper began his briefing, with the affirmation, “We oppose and are greatly disappointed by Turkey’s decision to announce a unilateral military incursion into northern Syria.”

“This operation puts our SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) partners in harm’s way,” he continued. “It risks the security of ISIS prison camps and further destabilizes the region.”

“To be clear,” Esper stated, “we are not abandoning our Kurdish partner forces and US troops remain with them, in other parts of Syria.”

“The impulsive action of President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan to invade northern Syria has put the United States in a tough position,” he continued.

Esper’s statement marked a clear shift from the US position on Thursday, when the most that administration officials were willing to say publicly by way of criticism of the Turkish attack was to describe it as “a very bad idea.”

Two hours after the Pentagon briefing, Mnuchin addressed reporters and said that no sanctions had been imposed yet, but, as the Treasury Department’s statement explained, the new measures are authorized “against Turkish government officials and entities, if they engage in the indiscriminate targeting of civilians, targeting of civilian infrastructure, targeting of ethnic or religious minorities, or targeting or other actions that undermine the continued counterterrorism activities of the Syrian Democratic Forces.”

Turkey, for its part, responded defiantly. “Threats, asking for an end to the operation, coming from left to right,” Erdogan said. “I told Mr Trump, and I told the others. If you can stop it, stop it. But they did not. We take matters into own hands.”

Asked by reporters to describe the situation on the ground, Gen. Milley explained that US Special Forces had withdrawn from two outposts on either side of the Turkish incursion zone, marked in the west by Tel Abyad and in the east by Sere Kaniye (in Arabic, Ras al-Ain), a distance of some 125 kilometers.

Otherwise, US troops remain co-located with their SDF partners, Milley stated.

Most of Turkey’s military action has involved air strikes, both with fixed wing manned aircraft, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) “in both a reconnaissance and an airstrike mode,” Milley said, as well as “artillery strikes and some direct fire from tanks” on the Turkish side of the border.

Turkey’s ground operations have been “relatively limited,” Milley stated. He estimated that “hundreds” of Turkish troops were involved in the operation, along with “perhaps” 1,000 fighters from Turkey’s proxy, the Free Syrian Army.

“They’ve advanced in the west,” he explained, some five to ten kilometers, and in the east, Turkish forces have moved about one to three kilometers into Syria.

Milley also said that he had seen “no indications” that Turkey was preparing to stop its offensive, a point confirmed by Esper, from his discussions with his Turkish counterpart.

The Pentagon has spent a great deal of time and effort to address Turkey’s security concerns, Esper explained, and “we were making good progress on the security zone.”

Esper noted that joint US-Turkish ground patrols had begun and a Combined Joint Operations Center had been established in southern Turkey.

“We were doing all the things we agreed to do,” Esper said, but, nonetheless, Turkey attacked.

He gave some indication of what the US sees as the way forward: essentially the measures that were worked out between the US and Turkish militaries, before Erdogan’s intervention, should be restored.

“Let’s get back to the status quo,” Esper said. “Let’s work out the security mechanism” and “get back to something where we can separate the two forces.”

In his Treasury Department briefing, Mnuchin told reporters, “I just got off the phone with the [Turkish] Finance Minister, and we will be communicating specifics” about the new authorities “that we’re not going to telegraph here.”

Although no sanctions have been imposed and details of the new measures remain scant, the Turkish lira weakened after Mnuchin’s statement, falling 1% below its close on Thursday, Reuters reported.