WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) — US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper warned Turkey on Tuesday against any cross-border attack into northeastern Syria.
Esper spoke to journalists traveling with him from New Zealand to Japan, as he visited several US allies in the Indo-Pacific region in his first trip there as Secretary of Defense.
Asked about Turkish threats to attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Esper replied, “Clearly, we do believe any unilateral action by them would be unacceptable.”
Nonetheless, later on Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued yet another bellicose statement, vowing an offensive into northeastern Syria “very soon.”
The clashing US and Turkish statements came on the second day of military talks in Ankara on the future of northeastern Syria following the territorial defeat of the Islamic State.
Those discussions continue on Wednesday. The US delegation is led by Brig. Gen. Scott Benedict, Deputy Director of politico-military affairs for the Middle East on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, and includes David Satterfield, US ambassador to Turkey, and James Jeffrey, US Special Representative for Syria and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
The negotiations are “tough and honest,” Nicholas Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Kurdistan 24.
“Going into the talks, the US was gravely worried about an imminent Turkish invasion of northern and eastern Syria,” Heras said. “This threat still exists, and the US military is deeply concerned” that it could be forced “to choose between firing on its NATO ally, Turkey, or being forced to apprehend or fire on SDF units that may attack the Turks.”
With his remarks on Tuesday, Esper became the most senior US official to warn Turkey against a cross-border attack. On Sunday, following a similar threat from Erdogan earlier that day, State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus also issued such a warning.
However, the White House has said nothing, and Heras suggested that was part of the problem.
It is well known that US President Donald Trump values his personal relationship with Erdogan. Indeed, at the G-20 summit in June, Trump hailed that relationship, saying it had allowed him to convince Erdogan not to attack the Kurds in Syria.
However, “the Turks smell blood in the water” now, “because they seem to believe that President Trump will order the US military to stand down if Turkey invades,” Heras said. “Trump is too pre-occupied with his personal relationship with Erdogan” and “that relationship means Erdogan can manipulate him, when they talk on the phone together.”
Whether an understanding between the US and Turkey is possible depends on whether Ankara can be persuaded to operate as part of the anti-ISIS Coalition, with its troops patrolling alongside other Coalition forces, “rather than having free range to patrol anywhere,” Heras stated. If Turkey will act as part of the Coalition, “focused on ISIS, rather than as an invading army, bent on wiping out the SDF, then a deal can be reached.”
Paul Davis, now a Senior Fellow at Soran University, was a businessman involved in industrial distribution and manufacturing after his service in the US Army. Davis explained to Kurdistan 24 that Trump’s approach is common in the business world.
“The boss maintains a good relationship with his counterpart and lets his underlings do the dirty work,” Davis said. “That’s a pretty traditional negotiating tactic, particularly among high-powered businessmen.”
Davis also suggested that although the situation seems tense now, “it’s always possible that Trump and Erdogan will speak, before Erdogan takes any really dramatic action,” and Trump may be able to dissuade Erdogan again from attacking the Kurds.
Davis noted that in Japan, Trump seemed to say that it would be morally wrong for the US to allow Turkey to attack the Kurds in Syria, who have been America’s principal partner in the fight against the Islamic State there.
Indeed, as Trump said at the conclusion of the G-20 summit, “[The Turks] were lined up to go and wipe out the people that we just defeated the ISIS caliphate with,” and I told Erdogan, “‘You can’t do that. You can’t do it.’ And he didn’t do it.”
“We made progress” with Turkey “on some of the key issues,” Esper told journalists on Tuesday. He also explained that he spoke regularly with his Turkish counterpart, and he stressed the importance of sustaining the “continued defeat” of ISIS, at least the physical caliphate, which would be imperiled by a Turkish attack on the SDF.
Editing by Nadia Riva