Turkish incursion into northeast Syria unlikely - U.S. official

Updates to 5th and 7th-12th paragraphs; correction of typo in headline 

U.S. and Turkish forces have begun pulling down fortifications of Syrian Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, substantially decreasing the likelihood of the offensive regularly threatened by top Turkish officials, the head of the anti-Islamic State (ISIS) coalition told reporters on Wednesday. 

“The removal of fortifications should not be seen necessarily as being something that makes the population of northeast Syria less secure,” said Chris Maier, head of the Defeat-ISIS Task Force, according to a government transcript. “We're pretty convinced that as we work with Turkey, the idea of a Turkish incursion into Syria has gone down substantially.”

Last month, the United States and Turkey agreed to carve out a safe zone in northeast Syria to address Turkey’s security concerns about the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF has been key to the U.S.-led fight against ISIS, while Ankara views it as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led an armed insurgency in Turkey since the 1980s. 

U.S.-Turkish joint patrols of the border area began last week. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Wednesday that if U.S. forces failed to adequately address Turkey’s concerns by the end of September, Ankara would launch a military offensive into the area. 

“We're on pace or in some cases ahead of pace with what was agreed to,” said Maier, adding that the safe zone is focused on Turkey’s security, yet also about maintaining the security of the SDF, which the United States continues to support in the fight against ISIS.  

“Our track record as a partner to them demonstrates that we remain focused on the D-ISIS campaign and are not looking for opportunities to perhaps introduce additional risk to them,” he told reporters.

Erdoğan is set to meet U.S. President Donald Trump during the UN General Assembly next week in New York. On Monday, Turkey's president, who has been facing increased domestic tensions with Syrians, said up to 3 million refugees could be repatriated to the safe zone. Maier said the United States agreed that the safe zone could host repatriated Syrians, some of whom might be from that area. 

“We're focused on the refugee issue as a longer-term element of the security mechanism,” said Maier, mentioning cooperation with the UN and aid organisations. “The U.S. position continues to be safe, voluntary and dignified, also informed, refugee returns.”

U.S. and Turkish forces have thus far carried out six joint patrols, including five via helicopter, according to Maier, with future joint patrols planned. The area being patrolled runs from Tal Abyad to Ras al-Ayn, but could be extended in the future, he added. 

Maier was asked about the continued presence in the area of the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military arm of the SDF that Turkey hopes to remove. 

“What we've committed to do is help to ensure the removal of the YPG elements and, as much as possible, ensure that that doesn't result in a security vacuum. Our assessment is that there are other security forces there that are local that are not YPG that would be part of an enduring security force,” he said. “The destruction of these fortifications addresses Turkish security concerns and, we believe, demonstrates SDF commitment to the implementation.”

The anti-ISIS task force chief also refuted Turkish media claims that Ankara did not know the extent of U.S. support for the SDF. "We're very transparent about what those supplies are," he said. "We provide monthly to Turkey a report of what those -- those arms and vehicles are."