Ilhan Tanir
Feb 13 2018

U.S. “greatly concerned” over Afrin op - senior U.S. official

The United States has registered its “great concern” with the Turkish government over its offensive against the Kurdish-controlled Syrian enclave of Afrin, a senior State Department official told reporters aboard U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s plane during a tour of the Middle East.

Tillerson is expected in Turkey on Friday, following hard on the heels of a visit to Turkey by U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Few details of the weekend talks emerged, but afterwards Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu warned relations between the two NATO allies could break down altogether over Syria.

Turkish troops launched an incursion into Afrin three weeks ago to rid the area of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish force that Ankara says is an extension of Kurdish militants in Turkey. But the United States backs the YPG, which forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and together they have pushed Islamic State (ISIS) out of most of eastern Syria.

The official warned that attacking the YPG in Afrin, northwest Syria, could have an impact on the fight to eradicate the remnants of ISIS along the Euphrates Valley near the border with Iraq.

“There is inter-relationship, there’s an interlock here,” the official said. “If the SDF, YPG feel threatened, they’re going to draw elements away from that fight to the places where they feel their interests are at stake. And that’s not theoretical, that’s an actual event.”

The major focus, the official said, “of the U.S., but of all of our partners is how do we move to a situation where once again focus can be on closing up that fight in the middle Euphrates Valley” and “avoiding steps that create new IDP (internally displaced people) flows, new violence, new potential for problems erupting in a different area, the northwest, completely.”

The U.S. Defense Department announced on Monday it would allocate $550 million of its 2019 budget to the SDF, of which, $250 million is for a border force that Turkey has strongly objected to. Tillerson rejected the notion that the U.S. would support such border force last month and it remains to be seen how Ankara will react to this new announcement.

Turkey’s focus, the State Department official said, was “on PKK/YPG and the threat that they see there. We believe there’s a way to work through ... these problems, and that’s why the secretary is going to Ankara.”

The U.S. official declined to comment directly on Çavuşoğlu’s warning that relations could completely break down, but said: “The fact the Secretary is travelling is an indication that the U.S. government regards this as still a relationship which allows us to talk quite openly, quite freely, with each other.”

The official added: "Senior U.S. interlocutors have made clear, both civilian and military, the secretary is very sympathetic to Turkish security concerns. But we do need to keep the objective of the enduring defeat of ISIS out there as a goal which is not made more difficult and other problems created beyond making the ISIS fight more difficult. We need to keep that to a minimum."