The head of the Pentagon has called Ankara’s offensive in Syria an “impulsive” move that is damaging relations between the United States and Turkey.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, speaking at a news conference on Friday, said Washington is “greatly disappointed” by the Turkish military campaign and called for Ankara to pull back its forces. The offensive began on Wednesday, shortly after US President Donald Trump announced that US troops were withdrawing from the northeastern region of Syria.
Esper said Turkey‘s actions threatened to further destabilise the region, put Syrian Kurdish allies in “harm’s way”, and raised the prospect of losing control of thousands of captured Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) fighters.
“The impulsive action of President Erdogan to invade northern Syria has put the US in a tough situation,” said Esper.
“The dramatic harm, I feel, is being done to our bilateral relationship,” he said
A day earlier, Esper urged Ankara to show restraint in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar.
The secretary “strongly encouraged Turkey to discontinue actions in northeastern Syria in order to increase the possibility that the US, Turkey and our partners could find a common way to de-escalate the situation before it becomes irreparable,” according to a Pentagon statement.
But at the Friday news conference, Esper said there was no indication that Turkey would be willing to “stop this incursion”.
Friday’s remarks were the Pentagon’s most explicit criticism of the Turkish operation since it began.
Turkish officials say the offensive aims to remove Kurdish-led forces, in particular the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), from the border area of Syria and create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees can be returned.
The YPG, who are considered “terrorists” by Ankara, spearhead the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of armed groups that were instrumental in defeating ISIL in Syria.
At the White House on Friday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin put Turkey on notice that it could face “powerful sanctions” for its military offensive, saying that the US will “shut down the Turkish economy” if Ankara goes too far.
‘Kurdish partner forces’
Esper also said that the US troop withdrawal, which included pulling out about 30 special operations personnel from observation posts along the border, did not mean Washington was ditching its allies in the war-torn country.
“To be clear,” Esper said, “we are not abandoning our Kurdish partner forces, and US troops remain with them in other parts of Syria.”
Speaking alongside Esper, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the Turkish military operations across the border into Syria as “still relatively limited”. The operation had so far been carried out near two Syrian villages by about 1,000 members of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army and hundreds of Turkish commando forces.
Milley added that the SDF were still guarding the camps holding ISIL prisoners in Kurdish areas. However, on Friday, a media official with the SDF said five ISIL fighters broke out of a prison in Qamishli, one of the main Kurdish towns in northeastern Syria, following Turkish shelling nearby.
Milley called on Syrian Kurds to show restraint so that a diplomatic solution might emerge.
The US is “encouraging them to not overreact at this point and to try to tamp things down in order to allow some sort of diplomatic resolution”, he said.
US President Donald Trump, on Thursday, laid out what he described as Washington’s three options in dealing with the escalating situation.
“We have one of three choices: Send in thousands of troops and win Militarily, hit Turkey very hard Financially and with Sanctions, or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds!” Trump tweeted.
“I hope we can mediate,” Trump said later in the day, when asked by reporters about the Tweet.
But a senior Turkish official in Washington told the Associated Press that such an offer would likely not be welcomed in Ankara due to Turkey’s opposition to negotiating with groups they consider “terrorists”.
The official, who was not authorised to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said previous efforts to broker deals with the Kurds had failed because negotiating “will not change their basic motivation and will not change their tactics”.
The official reiterated that Turkey would halt the operation and withdraw its forces only after the border area was cleared of “terrorists” but would not stay in Syria “one more day than is necessary”.
The United Nations estimates 100,000 people have been displaced from the fighting since Wednesday.
The violence has also reportedly forced the evacuation of several camps housing Syrians who had been internally displaced in previous fighting during eight years of civil war in the country. The medical charity Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) said several hospitals had also been forced to close.
In addition to Mnuchin’s threat of sanctions on Friday, members of the US Congress have also promised to introduce legislation to impose sanctions on Turkey over its Syria operation.
Those efforts are being led by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is usually a staunch Trump supporter, and Republican Representative Liz Cheney.