US' deeply concerned' over Turkish threats to Rojava, as Erdogan seeks to exploit Ukraine crisis
WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Tuesday that the US was "deeply concerned about reports and discussions of potential increased military activity in northern Syria" following a threat from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Following a cabinet meeting in Ankara on Monday, Erdogan announced that his country was preparing a new military operation to secure its southern border with Syria.
"We will soon take new steps regarding the incomplete portions of the project we started on the 30-kilometer deep safe zone we established along our southern border," Erdogan said.
His statement followed increased Turkish shelling of areas of northeast Syria, which began already on May 15.
Read More: Turkish forces bombard northeast Syria's Tal Tamr
The head of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), called on "the states that guaranteed the  ceasefire agreement"—i.e., the US and Russia—to halt the Turkish attacks.
Only the US has responded to that appeal, however. Russia is courting Turkey in the context of the Ukraine crisis. In addition, Moscow supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad and wants the SDF to negotiate with Damascus.
Erdogan also denounced Greece after its prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, visited the US last week. Turkey has been flying into Greek airspace, and those aerial incursions have been increasing. In an address to the US Congress, Mitsotakis alluded to the pending US sale of F-16 aircraft to Turkey.
"The last thing that NATO needs at a time when our focus is on helping Ukraine defeat Russia's aggression is another source of instability on NATO's south-east flank," Mitsotakis said. "I ask you to take this into account, when you make defense procurement decisions concerning the eastern Mediterranean."
Western Innocence in the Middle East Bazaar
The statements that Erdogan made on Monday are the latest in a series of obstructionist moves since May 13, when he spoke—in an unusual press conference following Friday prayers in Istanbul—about the request of Finland and Sweden to join NATO following Russia's unprovoked and brutal assault on Ukraine.
NATO accession requires the approval of all members of the organization. Erdogan quickly recognized the leverage the Ukraine crisis had created, and he seized the opportunity on May 13, saying, in response to a question about the Swedish and Finnish membership bids, "At this point, it is not possible for us to have a positive opinion."
Read More: As Erdogan opposes Sweden, Finland joining NATO, he denounces US relaxation of sanctions on Rojava
Until that point, it had been assumed that the request of the two Nordic countries would proceed smoothly, particularly as both had coordinated extensively with NATO in the past.
Thus, Erdogan's statement took the US—and the rest of NATO—by surprise.
Despite the importance of the issue and Erdogan's unexpected negativity, the US responded in a conciliatory fashion. As Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said later that day, "We're working to clarify, to better understand, Turkey's position," as he affirmed, "Turkey is a valued NATO ally."
The result was predictable: Erdogan's demands hardened and escalated, prompting the editors of The New York Post to denounce the Biden administration's weak response to the obstructionism of the Turkish president.
Indeed, as Kurdistan 24 suggested already on Sunday, the real target of Erdogan's obstructionism is the SDF. And as Erdogan announced on Monday, his intention is to renew the cross-border offensive that he tried to undertake three years ago.
Read More: Erdogan's objection to Finland and Sweden joining NATO: What does he want? Is US optimism justified?
Thus, State Department spokesperson Price said on Tuesday, "We are deeply concerned about reports and discussions of potential increased military activity in northern Syria, and, in particular, its impact on the civilian population."
"We condemn any escalation" and "support maintenance of the current ceasefire lines," he continued. "We expect Turkey to live up to the October 2019 joint statement, including to halt offensive operations in northeast Syria."
The last part of Price's statement confirmed the reports from Rojava that Turkish military activity has already increased in the area.
"We recognize Turkey's legitimate security concerns on [its] southern border," Price added, "but any new offensive would further undermine regional stability and put at risk US forces in the Coalition's campaign against ISIS."
Price was also asked about Erdogan's denunciation of Greece, and his response was somewhat less critical of Ankara.
"We urge our allies to avoid rhetoric that could further raise tensions," he stated, noting Mitsotakis's visit to Washington.
"The administration had a very good, important set of meetings with our Greek counterparts," Price said, calling Greece "an indispensable partner and a key NATO ally." He described Turkey in similar terms and concluded, "We want to see our partners work together to maintain peace and security in the region."
Finland, Sweden Bids to Join NATO
The initial response of the two Nordic countries to Erdogan's negative remarks on their NATO membership was to propose sending envoys to Ankara to discuss Turkey's concerns.
And Erdogan's first response was to insult them—reinforcing the point that their position on the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), supposedly at the heart of his concerns, is not the real issue.
Erdogan responded to their proposal on May 16 as he said in a televised address," Are they coming to convince us? Excuse me, but they should not tire themselves."
Five days later, however, Erdogan spoke by telephone with the leaders of the two Nordic countries.
Asked on Tuesday about the issue, Price explained that the US had consulted with all three parties, and "we do remain confident that we'll be able to maintain and preserve the strong consensus" within NATO "for a swift accession of Sweden and Finland."
Envoys from both countries are due in Ankara today. The Turkish side will be led by Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin and Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal.
Swedish State Secretary Oscar Stenstrom and Finnish Permanent State Secretary Jukka Salovaarawill head their countries' delegations.