Pentagon officials on Monday confirmed that Turkey's assault on the Kurdish canton of Afrin in northwest Syria has led to a temporary suspension of ground operations against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, although coalition air strikes continue.
U.S. backs Kurdish general, prompting Turkish rebuke
The Pentagon voiced its backing for a Kurdish military commander leading the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria’s Manbij, prompting a swift rebuke from Turkey.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning told reporters on Monday that “we (the United States) will continue to support General Mazloum and the local Syrian military in those liberated areas”.
But Mazloum, also known as General Mazloum Kobani and Ferhad Abdi Şahin, a Turkish name, has been on Turkey’s list of most-wanted terrorists since Oct. 28, 2015, according to the Hurriyet newspaper.
On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hami Aksoy accused Manning of talking nonsense, reiterating his view that the U.S. stance proved once again that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria are part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an autonomy-seeking group in Turkey recognised as terrorists by the United States and European Union, according to local Turkish media.
Aksoy said that, following a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Ankara last month, a first meeting of U.S. and Turkish officials on Syria and the disputed region of Manbij, where U.S. and Kurdish forces are based, will be held in Washington on March 8-9. Tillerson and the Turkish government agreed on the set of meetings in an effort to repair ties frayed over differences over Syria.
Turkey, which launched a military operation into the Syrian region of Afrin, west of Manbij, on Jan. 20 to battle Kurdish fighters of the YPG, has called on the United States to ensure that the Kurds in Manbij, which include YPG fighters, leave or face a possible Turkish incursion into the area. Washington has been arming and training the Kurds to fight Islamic State (ISIS) from a military base in Manbij.
Manning said on Monday that the Turkish operation into Afrin had caused a pause in U.S.-Kurdish operations against ISIS, but sought to play down the situation.
“Operational pauses occur regularly for a variety of reasons,” he was quoted by Kurdish news service Kurdistan 24 as saying.
Manning said the U.S. focus was still on ISIS. “The SDF are our major partner in our ability to do that.”