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Ilhan Tanir
Dec 13 2018

Unilateral military action in East Euphrates 'unacceptable'- US

The U.S. State Department, in an exclusive statement to Ahval, said “unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as U.S. personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern. We would find any such actions unacceptable".

This marks Foggy Bottom's first comments since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened this week to launch a third military operation into Syria since August 2016, in an effort to clear Kurdish rebels on both sides of the Euphrates River.

Turkey sees the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters in the region as terrorists and an extension to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has fought an insurgency against Turkey for over 30 years. U.S. forces have been supporting the same Kurdish fighters since mid-2014, when the Islamic State (ISIS) fighters laid siege on Kobane, a Kurdish city in northern Syria.

“Coordination and consultation between the U.S. and Turkey is the only approach to address issues of security concern in this area,” said the U.S. State Department spokesperson. “We are committed to working closely and recently held a High Level Working Group on Syria with our Turkish partners precisely to enhance our cooperation, coordination, and consultation.”

The mainly Kurdish administration in northern Syria issued a statement in response to Ankara’s threat, accusing Turkey of attempting a land grab and declaring a mobilisation.

“We as the Northern and Eastern Syrian Autonomous Administration’s council condemn Erdoğan’s hostile statement and threats to our region,” the statement said.

On Dec. 7, the Turkish-U.S. High-Level Working Group on Syria, led by U.S. special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, and Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, met for the third time, in Ankara.

“Turkey and the United States share a commitment to address effectively the security concerns of both countries consistent with their obligations to one another as Allies, and look forward to continued progress on issues of mutual interest regarding the ongoing crisis in Syria,” said a joint statement following last week's talks.

Former ambassador to Turkey, Jeffrey is known in Washington for his pro-Turkish government stance and has often argued for better relations with Erdoğan. Jeffrey, following Ankara's Afrin operation, accused the U.S. government of misreading Turkey’s intentions with regards to the Afrin operation and even said U.S. officials “look like fools".

Jeffrey began visiting Turkey on his first foreign tour as a Syrian envoy in September.

The U.S. State Dept. spokesperson told Ahval that the dialogue with working groups “is the only way to secure the border area in a sustainable manner, and we believe that uncoordinated military operations will undermine that shared interest.”

Erdoğan accused the U.S. of protecting terrorists with its newly erected guarding posts on the northeast Syrian border. In November, U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis said that the U.S. military would be building observation outposts in northern Syria along the Turkish border to help keep the focus on defeating ISIS in Syria.

“Turkey is a NATO ally for over six decades and a key partner in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS,” the U.S. State Dept. spokesperson told Ahval. “We have solemn obligations to one another’s security. We are fully committed to Turkey’s border security.”

On Wednesday Erdoğan said the Islamic State was no longer a threat, and that it was being used as a “stalling tactic” to not clear Manbij. “There is no threat named Daesh in Syria anymore,” he said. “This is a fairytale.”

The U.S. State Dept. spokesperson disagreed. “The campaign against ISIS is not over,” said the spokesperson. “Coalition forces are working closely with the Syrian Democratic Forces who are in the midst of offensive operations against ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. The SDF remains a committed partner against ISIS and we remain committed to working with them to ensure ISIS’s enduring defeat.”

The spokesperson concluded that the United States and Turkey, “cannot allow ISIS to breathe at this critical point or we will jeopardize the significant gains we have made alongside our Coalition partners and risk allowing ISIS to resurge".

When in August Jeffrey was appointed as Syria envoy, there were discussions in Washington about whether his primary goal would be to improve America’s strategy in Syria or fix broken US-Turkey relations. With U.S.’ anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk’s position about to be dissolved, Jeffrey’s Syria role becomes even more important.

“Fighting ISIS was such a priority, we had to focus on that before other things," Jeffrey said in a Washington Post interview in November, 2017. "Now as the conventional fight is over, we're trying to come up with a bigger policy. We can't do it without Turkey. It's pure geography. We have to mend fences with the Turks if we want to remain in Syria.”

Mending fences might be a bit more complicated if Turkey launches a military operation east of the Euphrates.