Renewed hostilities between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish fighters do not sit well with the United States, which repeatedly warned on Tuesday that the fighting would only benefit the Islamic State terrorist group.
Senior US officials acknowledge that Turkey has the right to defend itself against terrorist attacks, but have warned that recent Turkish airstrikes and rocket attacks by Syrian Kurdish forces are undermining efforts by all parties to contain and degrade IS.
“We oppose any military action that destabilizes the situation in Syria,” Col. Joe Buccino, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told VOA via email.
“These actions threaten our shared goals, including the continued fight against ISIS, to ensure that the group is never able to re-emerge and threaten the region,” he added, using another acronym for the terrorist group.
The US-led coalition to defeat IS also called for de-escalation, taking the message to social media.
“These attacks threaten the safety of civilians, undermine hard-won stability in the region and disrupt our shared goal of defeating ISIS,” the coalition tweeted.
Defense officials in Washington sought to debunk the message later in the day, adding that US officials were in contact with Turkey and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“We continue to call for de-escalation on all sides and in our conversations, and what we’ve said publicly is that these attacks from all sides threaten our mission, which is to defeat ISIS,” Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said during the meeting. Tuesday’s briefing, answering a question from Voice of America.
Although relations between Washington and Ankara have been strained in recent years, the US and Turkey are longtime allies, with Turkey also a key NATO member.
But officials in Ankara bristled at Washington’s willingness to work with the Kurdish-led SDF in its efforts to defeat IS.
Many members of the SDF come from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington.
According to Turkey, the SDF and the YPG are one and the same. And Turkish officials have launched a recent offensive against both groups after they were blamed for a Nov. 13 bombing in Istanbul that killed at least eight people and wounded dozens.
Both the YPG and the SDF have denied involvement in the bombing, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled on Tuesday that the search for justice was far from over despite calls for restraint from the US and others.
“We have been attacking terrorists for several days with our planes, cannons and weapons,” Erdogan said in a speech. “God willing, we will exterminate them as soon as possible together with our tanks, our soldiers.”
Turkish officials claim to have killed or captured more than 180 Kurdish militants during the operation, while the YPG and SDF are accused of killing at least three civilians and wounding at least six others in cross-border mortar attacks.
Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdish officials have accused Turkey of launching airstrikes specifically aimed at undermining efforts to fight IS.
“The Turkish airstrike is a clear message of hope for ISIS terrorist cells,” SDF spokesman Farhad Shami tweeted late Tuesday, referring to the reported airstrikes in the village of al-Makman, 70 kilometers from the border with Turkey.
“Operations against ISIS cells are going on in that area and our forces with the international coalition are often pursuing ISIS cells there,” Shami added.
Earlier, Sinam Mohamad, the US representative for the SDF’s political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), tweeted that a separate Turkish airstrike hit a base used by SDF and US counter-terrorist units.
According to her, two members of the anti-terrorist unit were killed.
US Central Command, which oversees US forces in the region, confirmed the attack in an email to VOA late Tuesday.
“Although no US forces were present at the base at the time of this morning’s attack, these actions threaten US forces operating in Syria to defeat ISIS,” the statement said.
The US has about 900 troops in Syria and an additional 2,500 in Iraq as part of the ongoing effort to contain and defeat IS.
“We will continue to monitor what’s happening on the ground and make sure our forces are safe,” Singh told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday, adding, “There is no change in the posture of our forces at this time.”
Dorian Jones contributed to this report.