US warns Ankara, amid worry of Turkish incursion into northeast Syria

“Any uncoordinated military operations by Turkey would be of grave concern as it would undermine our shared interest of a secure northeast Syria and the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
author_image Laurie Mylroie

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – For the second straight day, on Friday, senior US Defense Department officials held discussions with their Turkish counterparts, amid US concerns that Ankara is preparing an attack across the border into northeast Syria.

Such concerns do, indeed, appear well-founded, as, the following day, on Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened an imminent attack.

On Friday, Gen. Mark Milley, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke by telephone with his Turkish counterpart, Gen. Yasar Guler. According to a formal US readout of their discussion – the first between the two men – they “discussed updates to the security situation in Syria and the importance of US-Turkish cooperation in the region.”

However, Lt. Col. Gleason, Pentagon Spokesperson, provided Kurdistan 24 with a more pointed statement that articulated US concerns more clearly.

“In our view, and we have communicated this to Turkey,” Gleason said, “any uncoordinated military operations by Turkey would be of grave concern as it would undermine our shared interest of a secure northeast Syria and the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

Presumably, Milley stated that as well. And so, too, one assumes, did US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper who spoke with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar on Thursday.

The discussions occurred against the backdrop of a Wall Street Journal report on Thursday that explained: “US officials are increasingly concerned that Turkey soon will mount a major incursion into northern Syria and trigger a clash with Kurdish fighters”—that is with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have been America’s main ally in the fight against the so-called Islamic State in Syria.

Yet senior US officials appear reluctant to describe, at least publicly, the extent of US concerns about possible Turkish actions.

On Tuesday, Erdogan told Turkey’s parliament about his intentions in Syria, including for the 3.6 million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey.

“We plan to resettle two million people along the 30-kilometer deep safe zone which we will create in the area between the Euphrates River and the Iraqi border, including Manbij,” Erdogan stated.

“Turkey does not have a single day to waste in this matter,” he said. “At this point, we have no alternative but to continue on our own path.”

Such a plan, if implemented, would bring about radical demographic change, creating an “Arab belt” between Kurdish-inhabited areas of Turkey and Syria.

It would also threaten the fragile stability that the US-led Coalition, in partnership with the SDF, has established in northeast Syria, while raising the prospect of the re-emergence of the Islamic State.

Asked by Kurdistan 24 at a Pentagon press briefing on Thursday to provide an update on the implementation of “the security mechanism” along the Syrian-Turkish border and whether it was still viable in light of Erdogan’s remarks, Col. Patrick Ryder (US Air Force), Spokesperson for the Joint Staff, declined to comment on Erdogan’s statements.

However, Ryder affirmed, “We continue to implement the security mechanism.” US and Turkish forces have conducted “seven combined air reconnaissance flights, two joint ground patrols,” and more are “planned for the future.”

“We continue to see YPG (People’s Protection Units—the Kurdish leadership of the SDF) fortifications being dismantled,” and that “shows a good base effort on the SDF’s part to help implement this mechanism.”

Asked, “As far as you’re concerned, the SDF is complying with the terms of these understandings,” Ryder replied, “We continue to work with them, we continue to see fortifications be dismantled.”

“We recognize there’s still a lot of work to do, but we’re confident that progress is being made,” he concluded.

To this reporter, it sounded like Ryder had responded, albeit cautiously, in the affirmative: the SDF is complying with the terms of the agreement with Turkey.

Yet “there is growing concern within the US government,” Nicholas Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Kurdistan 24. “Erdogan's continued provocations might force the US to not only hasten a withdrawal but force the SDF into a bad agreement with Russia and the Syrian regime, rather than cede territory to Turkey that could become filled with jihadists.”

“The US military does not want to be in a position to have to fire on a NATO ally to protect the SDF, even though there are some US commanders who no longer view Turkey as an ally,” Heras said.

Erdogan’s strategy is to keep constant pressure on his US counterparts by repeatedly threatening cross-border operations,” Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian and currently a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, advised Kurdistan 24.

Erdemir cautioned that statements “about possibly withdrawing all American forces” might “embolden the Turkish president to take unilateral action,” producing unintended consequences.

Whatever the reason, Erdogan does appear emboldened. On Friday, his top advisor, Ibrahim Kalin, spoke by telephone with the new White House National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, who assumed that position on Sept. 18, following Amb. John Bolton’s departure.

On Saturday, Erdogan affirmed to his Justice and Development Party (AKP) that Turkey was readying a cross-border assault.

“We have completed our preparations and action plan, the necessary instructions were given,” Erdogan said. “Maybe today or tomorrow will be the time to clear the way for [our] peace efforts, which are set, and the process for them started,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

“We will carry out a ground and air operation,” Erdogan affirmed. “Our aim is, I underscore, to shower the east of Euphrates with peace.”

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany