The protection of allied forces who fought and died battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) in Syria must be guaranteed, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in a phone conversation.
Pompeo and Cavusoglu talked on Monday as the NATO allies try to reach an agreement over the fate of US-backed, Kurdish-led fighters, who fought against the ISIL, following the planned withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria.
The US State Department said Pompeo also reiterated Washington’s commitment to addressing Turkey’s security concerns along the Turkish-Syrian border.
During the discussion, Pompeo emphasised “the importance that the United States places on the protection of forces that worked with the United States and the global coalition to defeat ISIS”, department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a press release.
The US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG), which spearheads the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) operations, played a key role in the removal of ISIL fighters after the armed group captured vast territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014.
The US demand for the YPG militia’s safety has been a source of growing tensions between the NATO allies, which led to President Donald Trump threatening Ankara with economic “devastation” if it hits the armed group in northern Syria.
In a surprise move, Trump announced on December 19 that the US would pull its 2,000 soldiers out of northeastern Syria quickly, declaring ISIL had been defeated – a view not shared by many security experts and policy advisers.
US officials have since been walking back Trump’s timeline, suggesting conditions for any such withdrawal would be finishing off ISIL and Turkey assuring the safety of its allied Kurdish fighters.
In a phone conversation on Sunday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Trump that Turkey was ready to take over security in Manbij, a town in northeastern Syria held by the SDF and the YPG, where four Americans died in an ISIL-claimed suicide bombing last week.
Turkey has long demanded that YPG-led forces move to the east of the Euphrates River in Syria and leave control of Manbij to the Turkish army and its allied militias.
Trump and Erdogan have discussed creating a safe zone in Syria starting at the Syrian-Turkish border, but it’s unclear if any progress has been made.
Turkey has vowed to launch a new crossborder military operation to wipe out the YPG in Manbij.
The armed group’s predominance east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria is a prime threat to Turkey that will be eliminated, Omer Celik, spokesman for Turkey’s ruling AK Party, said on Monday.
“Those talking about Syria’s territorial integrity and its people’s sovereignty should take a principled stance against terror groups,” said Celik. “Turkey has the capacity to fight Daesh [ISIL] and to take over security in Manbij. Thus, it has the capacity to form a safe zone [in Syria].”
The SDF said last week it was ready to help create a safe zone amid Kurdish fears the US withdrawal would give Ankara an opportunity to launch a new offensive.