(Bloomberg) -- Turkey’s plans to expand its war against Kurdish fighters in Syria touched off strong objections from the U.S., whose soldiers risk becoming entangled in direct conflict with advancing Turkish forces.
Buoyed by his army’s capture of Afrin, a Kurdish stronghold in northwest Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to extend the offensive against separatist Kurdish militants to eastern Syria and northern Iraq. On Monday, the Pentagon voiced concern that Turkey’s military drive could further weaken the battle against Islamic State in southern Syria, where Syrian Kurdish fighters form the backbone of the U.S.-led campaign.
“Further operations beyond the border regions will draw in more forces and further exacerbate an already deteriorating humanitarian situation,” Colonel Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia as an extension of the separatist Kurdish PKK group that has battled the Turkish military since the 1980s, and is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Turkey. Relations with the U.S. have been strained over Washington’s support for the YPG, and a direct confrontation between their forces is liable to ignite over Turkey’s vow to clear Kurdish fighters from areas where U.S. forces are embedded.
‘Attempting to Deceive’
On Tuesday, Erdogan accused Washington of “attempting to deceive” Turkey by saying Kurdish fighters were armed only against Islamic State.
“The takeover of Afrin is a triumph for Erdogan domestically but it comes at very high cost for Turkey’s international image and its relationship with key partners,” Wolfango Piccoli, co-founder of Teneo Intelligence in London, said in an email on Tuesday. Russia, whose military turned the tide of Syria’s war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad, has succeeded to intensify the wedge between Turkey and the U.S.,” Piccoli said.
Hami Aksoy, spokesman for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, said the Turkish operation doesn’t target civilians, and dismissed as “completely groundless” the U.S. claim that its expansion would compromise the fight against Islamic State.
A senior Turkish foreign ministry official is expected to travel to the U.S. in the coming days for talks over Turkey’s demand for the withdrawal of YPG militants from the city of Manbij, where U.S. forces are deployed.
Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Monday that Turkey and the U.S. reached an agreement over Manbij before the firing of Rex Tillerson. The U.S. is expected to maintain its stance on Manbij when new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes office and implementation of the agreement would avert a face-off with the U.S. in Syria, he said. The U.S., however, denies such an agreement.
“Well, that’s funny, because no agreement has been reached,” on Manbij, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in response to a question related to remarks by Kalin on Tuesday.
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