Turkey rejects accusations it's threatening US troops in Syria

  • Turkey is not softening its stance on the U.S.-backed Kurds in northern Syria, whom it has threatened to attack much to the alarm of American officials.
  • “We are not risking American soldiers’ lives, our target is the PKK and YPG terrorist organization," Turkey's foreign minister told CNBC on Sunday.
  • The Pentagon has said that "unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as US personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern."

Turkey is not softening its stance on the U.S.-backed Kurds in northern Syria, whom it has threatened to attack much to the alarm of American officials.

Speaking to CNBC in Doha Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu maintained that Ankara would not accept continued Kurdish paramilitary presence in the area. He argued that contrary to Pentagon warnings, Turkish actions would not endanger U.S. troops working alongside the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) that his government views as a primary enemy.

"We are not risking American soldiers' lives, our target is the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) and YPG terrorist organization, as it was in Afrin," Cavusolgu said, referring to Turkey's January offensive against Kurdish paramilitary units in the Kurdish enclave of northern Syria. Erdogan's focus on the Kurds as a primary threat has complicated Washington's plans in Syria, which include relying on YPG fighters to push out the Islamic State.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan threatened on Friday that his forces would enter the northern Syrian town of Manbij if the U.S. doesn't remove the Kurdish fighters.

"But if America believes that they are the shelter, the protector of this terrorist organization, that is something else," the minister said. "And we have the channels between the militaries to avert any friendly fire or accident, we have this channel and we have good mil-to-mil (military-to-military) cooperation as well."

Pentagon: Unilateral military action is 'of grave concern'

The White House has repeatedly warned against carrying out any such plan, and the threat from Erdogan prompted a call with President Donald Trump the same day during which the two agreed to "more effective coordination" between their countries' operations in Syria. At least 2,000 U.S. troops are working alongside the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the country's north.

The Pentagon said that "unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as U.S. personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern."

While Ankara and Washington are allies against IS in Syria, the two are at loggerheads over U.S. support for the YPG — the backbone of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces — which the Pentagon says has been vital in the anti-IS fight and in ridding much of northern Iraq and Syria of the terrorist group's presence. Turkey stresses the group's ties to the separatist PKK, a Turkish and U.S.-designated terrorist group that's carried out a violent decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

Turkish army troops gather near the Syrian border at Hassa, in Hatay province on January 21, 2018.
Bulent Kilic | AFP | Getty Images
Turkish army troops gather near the Syrian border at Hassa, in Hatay province on January 21, 2018.

While Turkey has "legitimate concerns" about the PKK, a unilateral military intervention into Manbij would be "counterproductive" and "directly undermine ongoing coalition efforts to consolidate security gains" following counter-IS operations, said Melissa Dalton, director of the Cooperative Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

"Strong diplomatic and mil-to-mil dialogue to understand Turkey's specific concerns will be vital in the days ahead to avert an unnecessary escalation," Dalton, who formerly served in a number of roles at the Pentagon, told CNBC. "Even with strong mil-to-mil de-confliction, mistakes can be made and inadvertent escalation is possible as U.S. personnel are working directly with SDF forces and local administrators in the region."

The U.S. has long sought to downplay the YPG's links to the PKK, analysts say.

Turkey and the U.S. previously agreed on a deal to pull the Kurdish fighters out of the area, but Ankara complains that the U.S. hasn't followed through on its promises.

"Is America (the) shelter of the PKK terrorist org? They shouldn't be, that's the problem. Why did they give that many weapons?" Cavusoglu lamented of the American arms, training and air support given to Kurdish forces.

"ISIS was one of the main serious problems, in both Syria and Iraq … But ISIS is not the only terrorist organization, there are other small groups and many foreign terrorists in Idlib as well, and also PKK and YPG," the minister added.

Syria analyst Noah Bonsey of the International Crisis Group emphasized the growing urgency of Washington's messy conundrum. "The U.S. has sound reasons to continue to support the YPG," he told the New York Times earlier this year. "But doing so while the PKK maintains an active insurgency against its NATO ally is an unsustainable situation."

Kurdish commanders have responded by saying that the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the YPG, would "respond strongly" to any attack, according to Reuters.