4 Jun, 2018
Ankara and Washington say they have agreed on details of a withdrawal of US-backed Kurdish militia from northern Syria, as visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared further US support to the Kurds “unacceptable.”
Cavusoglu was in Washington on Monday, meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss Syria as well as US-Turkish relations. The State Department confirmed the agreement on a “road map” for the city of Manbij, using dry diplomatic language.
.@SecPompeo & #Turkey FM @MevlutCavusoglu reaffirmed their commitment to addressing common concerns, including terrorism, in a spirit of allied partnership. They also considered recommendations for cooperation in #Syria, including steps to ensure security & stability in #Manbij. pic.twitter.com/J7WelhLmGq
— Heather Nauert (@statedeptspox) June 4, 2018
At the press conference following the meeting with Pompeo, however, Cavusoglu was far more direct. The city of Manbij would be secured by both Turkish and US forces, he said, and the roadmap will be implemented in other parts of Syria as well, according to Reuters and several Turkish outlets.
Further US support for the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) militia was “unacceptable,” the Turkish FM declared.
Washington has backed the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as its principal ally against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) holdings in Syria. The group controls much of the country’s northeast and, while it does include local Arab militias, the vast majority of its fighters belong to the YPG. Ankara regards the group as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which both Ankara and Washington have designated a terrorist organization.
Cavusoglu said the planned Turkish purchase of F-35 fighter jets has not been canceled or delayed, and that Turkey will not tolerate any pressure regarding the purchase of military equipment. Washington has sought to leverage the F-35 deal to stop Ankara’s plans to acquire the Russian S-400 air defense system, with Pompeo telling the Senate in April that efforts were under way to “keep the Turks in a place where they will never acquire the S-400.”
The details of the roadmap, as described by the Turkish side, appear to meet what Cavusoglu demanded in January, when Ankara launched a second incursion into Syria, this time against the Kurdish militias in Afrin.
Turkey had previously sent troops into Syria in August 2016, following the liberation of Manbij by the SDF. The operation, dubbed “Euphrates Shield,” failed to gain control of the city, as the SDF linked up with the Syrian Army and its Russian allies. Just like the US presence in Syria, neither Turkish incursion was legal under international law, and was condemned by Damascus as an act of aggression.
Ankara’s demands that the US stop supporting the Kurds grew louder as relations between the two allies deteriorated in the wake of the abortive 2015 military coup in Turkey. While paying lip service to Turkey’s importance as a NATO member and regional ally, the US continued to back the Kurds as an effective local proxy force against IS.
Kurds have been lauded internationally for their struggle with Islamist militants, sometimes as the only viable force to counter them on the ground. The Kurdish-led SDF liberated Raqqa, the “caliphate’s” self-proclaimed capital, in October 2017. At the same time, Kurdish autonomy ambitions have not always sat well with the government, with the Syrian forces clashing with Kurds for control over areas in the Deir ez-Zor province on several occasions.
Last week, the Pentagon warned against attacking the SDF and the US forces embedded with them, after Syrian President Bashar Assad told RT the government will seek to reclaim all of Syria one way or another. While he did mention the US forces illegally stationed in part of Syria, it was unclear whether the warning also applied to Turkey.