US President Donald Trump alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Donald J. Trump urged Turkey to “deescalate” and “limit its military actions” in northwest Syria. On Sunday, Turkey launched operations against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in the mountainous area of Afrin in Syria. The US has worked closely with the Kurds in eastern Syria and is a close NATO ally of Ankara's.
Turkey's operation in Syria's Kurdish-controlled Afrin region has "de facto" begun with cross-border shelling. (Reuters)
On Wednesday Trump spoke with Erdogan and relayed concerns that escalating violence in Afrin could “risk undercutting our shared goals in Syria,” according to a White House statement. The US urged Turkey to avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced people and refugees.
However, Anadolu news agency in Turkey claims that officials speaking on condition of anonymity say the White House statement is incorrect. "President Donald Trump did not discuss any concerns of 'escalating violence in Afrin,' during the phone call," the agency reported.
“Trump urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces. He reiterated that both nations must focus all parties on the shared goal of achieving the lasting defeat of ISIS.”
In unusually tough language about Turkey’s actions, the American president “expressed concern about destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey, and about United States citizens and local employees detained under the prolonged State of Emergency in Turkey,” the statement reads. The US also said it wanted closer bilateral cooperation and cares about Turkey’s legitimate security concerns. Washington said it would continue to combat ISIS, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), al-Qa’ida, and Iranian-sponsored terrorism.
Turkey surprised the United States by launching an offensive on January 20th, sending tanks, ground forces and F-16s alongside up to 25,000 Syrian rebel allies to fight the Kurdish YPG. The YPG has been part of the Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria, which has been fighting ISIS alongside the US for the past four years. Turkey views the YPG as part of the PKK and a terrorist organization.
Turkey has expressed displeasure over US policy in eastern Syria for the last two years, and in March 2017 the US had to send armored vehicles to warn off Ankara from attacking US SDF partners near Manbij in Syria. However, Afrin is a YPG-held canton that is outside the US-led coalition’s area of operations. The US, UK and NATO have expressed support for Turkey’s security concerns, and the Trump phone call on Wednesday marks the first time the US president has criticized Turkey’s actions.
With Turkey having committed so many troops and encouraging Syrian rebels to move their forces from the frontlines against the Syrian regime, it will be difficult for Ankara to deescalate now. Instead, Erdogan has implied Syrian refugees might be re-settled in Afrin after the YPG is cleared from the area and Turkish media has said Afrin could be a six-month operation.