The United States has called on Turkey to “stay focused on the fight against ISIL and not to engage Syrian defense forces,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter today at a Pentagon news conference today, using an alternate name for ISIS.
He said there had been various senior-level contacts in recent days with Turkey to make that point and that he would do the same in a meeting with his Turkish counterpart next week.
Last week’s Turkish offensive that captured the ISIS-held border town of Jarabulus has resulted in a chaotic situation where various Syrian and Kurdish rebel groups supported and trained by the United States have clashed in battle because of pre-existing animosities.
The Turkish force that retook Jarabulus also includes a Syrian rebel force previously trained by the Pentagon to fight ISIS. They have pushed south of Jarabulus to take on Kurdish fighters aligned with the Syrian Democratic Forces who have pushed north from the recently captured city of Manbij.
“We call on both sides to not fight with one another to continue to focus the fight on ISIL that’s the basis of our cooperation with both of them,” Carter said.
The push south of Jarabulus by Turkey and its rebel allies seems intended to prevent Kurdish fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces from pushing northward and creating a Kurdish buffer zone along the border with Turkey.
In its fight against ISIS, the United States has had to walk the fine line of training, advising and assisting the Syrian Democratic Forces, which has become its strongest partner in the fight against ISIS in eastern and northern Syria, while giving strong concern to Turkish concerns about the group.
A large number of the Syrian Democratic Forces come from what is known as the YPG, an acronym for Self Protection Units in Kurdish, a group that Turkey says is aligned with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) that conducts terrorist attacks inside Turkey.
An earlier statement today from Peter Cook, Pentagon press secretary, called the fighting south of Jarabulus “unacceptable” and labeled them “a source of deep concern.”
“This is an already crowded battle space,” Cook said. “Accordingly, we are calling on all armed actors to stand down immediately and take appropriate measures to de-conflict.”
Carter said one of the things the United States is talking to Turkey about is clarifying where different elements of the SDF are in the area, particularly those belonging to the YPG.
“We do understand that they have historical differences with one another, but American interests are quite clear we, like they, want to combat ISIL,” Carter said. “We’re calling on all involved, let’s keep our priorities clear in helping them to de-conflict, so to speak on the battlefield.”
Carter called on the Turks to keep prior commitments that they would not engage the Syrian Democratic Forces and remain only north and west of Jarabulus. He called on the Syrian Kurds to keep their commitment that they would move east back across the Euphrates once the Manbij operation is fully over.
The Kurds are moving across the Euphrates, according to Carter.
“They are doing that, yes,” he said. “But that’s the understanding we have with them and we want to make sure that they continue that commitment.”