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Esper warns Turkey of 'serious consequences' over Syria move

Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters from the Syrian National Army are driven through the town of Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, on their way to cross the border to Tel Abyad, Syria, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019.

LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP

By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 11, 2019

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark Esper “strongly encouraged” Turkey’s defense minister to stop its incursion into northeastern Syria during a call Thursday, saying the operation “risks serious consequences for Turkey,” according to a Pentagon statement released Friday.

On Tuesday, Turkey started its military action into northeast Syria to attack areas where the Syrian Democratic Forces were operating along the border with Turkey.

After the fall of the Islamic State caliphate in Syria in March, the United States kept military forces in northeast Syria to ensure that the remaining fighters in the terrorist group do not re-form. The Kurdish-led SDF was instrumental in the fight against ISIS and worked alongside U.S. forces.

During a Friday news briefing at the Pentagon, Esper denied that the U.S. had turned its back on the SDF.

“To be clear, we are not abandoning our Kurdish partner forces, and U.S. troops remain with them in other parts of Syria,” he said.

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Esper told Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar during their call that the United States opposes Turkey’s “uncoordinated actions as they place at risk the progress made by the Defeat-ISIS Coalition,” according to the Pentagon statement by Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman.

“While the secretary reaffirmed we value our strategic bilateral relationship, this incursion risks serious consequences for Turkey,” the statement says. “The secretary also reiterated his strong concern that, despite U.S. force protection measures, Turkey’s actions could harm U.S. personnel in Syria.”

Turkey, a NATO partner, has raised security concerns about the Syrian Kurdish forces, specifically the YPG forces, near its border. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan told President Donald Trump during a phone call Sunday that he was going to conduct an operation in that area.

Trump responded, saying the U.S. would pull its forces from key posts in northern Syria. The SDF immediately condemned the decision, saying that they would defend themselves against a Turkish attack.

Esper denied that the U.S. “greenlighted” Turkey’s incursion.

“Just the opposite,” he said Friday. “We pushed back very hard at all levels for the Turks not to commence this operation.”

In Thursday’s call, Esper “strongly encouraged Turkey to discontinue actions in northeastern Syria” so that they could “deescalate the situation before it becomes irreparable.”

Trump told reporters Thursday at the White House that he hoped the U.S., Turkey and the Syrian Kurds could mediate the situation.

“So what we have is really two choices: You have the choice of bringing in the military and defeating everybody again, or you have the choice of financially doing some very strong things to Turkey … We have a very good relationship with the Kurds. Or we can mediate … I hope we can mediate,” he said.

Even with calls to Turkey’s defense minister about opposition to the operation, Esper said Friday, “I have yet no indication that they are willing to stop.”

The U.S. has coordinated with Turkey’s military where American forces remain in Syria in order to protect them, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Friday. “Everyone is fully aware that we are the United States military, we retain the right of self-defense. And our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines will defend themselves,” he said. “That’s clear, and it’s unambiguous with anybody.”

A U.S. official Friday afternoon acknowledged that there was an explosion in the vicinity of an outpost near Kobane in Syria where U.S. forces were positioned. No U.S. servicemembers were injured.

“We don’t know for sure from whom it came and we don’t have verification from where right now,” the official said.  “There has been no activity since the explosion.”

Kenney.Caitlin@stripes.com
Twitter: @caitlinmkenney

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