The U.S. special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, used a speech at the Atlantic Council on Tuesday to describe American support for armed Kurdish groups in Syria as “transactional” and temporary – a message certain to be heard clearly in Ankara as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepares a major military offensive against America’s erstwhile battlefield allies against the Islamic State.
Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News found great significance in Jeffrey’s assessment of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led alliance of anti-ISIS fighters:
The U.S.’s relationship with the SDF is “tactical” and “transactional,” Jeffrey said in a speech at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank on Dec. 17.
“We don’t have permanent relations with sub-state entities,” he said, adding the U.S. supported the SDF with the specific goal of fighting against ISIL.
The SDF is dominated by the YPG, which Ankara considers as the Syrian extension of the PKK, which is listed as terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU.
Turkey’s Andalou Agency news service more bluntly described the SDF as “a group spearheaded by the YPG/PKK terrorist group” and made a point of mentioning 40,000 deaths attributed to the PKK, thus reinforcing the Turkish government’s claim that virtually all Kurdish militia in Syria are aligned with the PKK.
The SDF is still fighting the remnants of the Islamic State in Syria. The group announced a major assault against an ISIS stronghold in Deir Azzor province on Monday, an attack reportedly supported by artillery fire from the U.S. coalition in Syria. The SDF simultaneously fended off a counterattack from ISIS terrorists seeking to establish a foothold in another town.
The Pentagon said on Monday that Turkey is still actively coordinating its activities in Syria with the U.S. military and does not appear to be preparing a major assault on the Kurds, no matter how often Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists such a campaign could begin at any minute. The Pentagon further denied rumors that additional U.S. troops have been moved into position to deter the Turks and shield the Kurds.
Erdogan repeated his threats to attack the Syrian Kurds as recently as Monday. He indicated U.S. President Donald Trump “responded positively” to Turkish demands that Kurdish forces must be relocated out of the strategically vital city of Manbij, long seen as the flashpoint for a Turkish-Kurdish confrontation that could put American troops in the crossfire. Erdogan nevertheless insisted a Turkish assault on other Kurdish positions near the border could begin “at any moment now.” He is also increasingly outspoken in describing Kurdish militia groups as “terrorists.”
“I call on those openly sponsoring terrorists in the region: You’re doing wrong, give it up. Those who strung us along for years in Manbij and who have now made us certain promises regarding east of the Euphrates must deliver on those promises,” Erdogan said on Monday, referring to American promises that Kurdish forces would leave Manbij.
The Washington Post noted that Syrian fighters allied with Turkey wish to displace the Kurds from their positions and “may not be wholly under Turkish control,” which raises the specter of an opportunistic action by uncontrolled Syrian allies that escalates and brings Turkish military units into the fray. The Post’s sources indicated Turkey is moving more military forces to the border.
One of the chips on the table between Presidents Trump and Erdogan appears to be exiled Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen, portrayed by Erdogan as the head of a sinister global conspiracy and mastermind of the 2016 coup attempt against him.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu claimed over the weekend that Trump told Erdogan the U.S. is working on extraditing Gulen and some of his followers to Turkey, fulfilling a demand Turkey has been making for years.
The White House insisted on Monday that President Trump made no commitment on Gulen when he spoke with Erdogan at the G-20 summit in Argentina two weeks ago. On Tuesday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Trump is willing to “take a look” at extradition but gave no commitment to Erdogan.
The effort to extradite Gulen is part of the case against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was charged with unlawfully lobbying U.S. politicians to favor Turkey’s demand.