ANKARA: A military offensive by Turkey against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria would be “unacceptable” and the US would act to prevent it, the Pentagon warned on Tuesday.
The warning came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed threats to drive US-backed Kurdish militia away from its border, because Ankara considers them a terrorist threat to its security.
“Turkey cannot feel safe as long as this structure along our southern border, which is growing like a cancer, is not eliminated,” he said. “If we don’t do what is necessary today, we will have to do so by paying a high price later.”
The threats drew a sharp response from US Defense Secretary Mark Esper. “Clearly we believe any unilateral action by them would be unacceptable,” he said. “What we’re going to do is prevent unilateral incursions.”
The US and Turkey have been in talks for months about a “safe zone” in northern Syria east of the Euphrates River, but discussions have ground to a halt because they cannot agree on its scope.
Turkey is demanding a long strip of land extending 32 km into Syria, over which it would have full control. “The US can never agree to that,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a US think tank.
James Jeffrey, the US special envoy for Syria, said: “The Turks want a deeper zone than the one we think makes sense.” Instead the US has proposed a two-tiered zone, with a 5 km demilitarized strip and a further 9 km area cleared of heavy weapons.
Turkey has sent troops into northwest Syria twice in the past three years, but an incursion east of the Euphrates would mean confronting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, armed and backed by the US in the fight against Daesh, and risking direct engagement with US troops.
Nevertheless, an offensive seems imminent. “For some time, Turkey’s armed forces have deployed on the Syrian border. All the necessary preparations for an operation are complete,” a senior Turkish official said.
In a sign of these preparations, parts of the security wall between Turkey and Syria were removed on Monday night to the west of Kobani in eastern Aleppo.
Turkey was using the threat of an invasion to push for a deal on the border zone that suits its interests, said Jesse Marks, a Middle East analyst and Fulbright scholar at Cambridge University. “Over the past six months of negotiations, Turkish invasion rhetoric has intensified in periods of political impasse.”