The United States would prefer that Turkish troops “remove themselves” from a conflict in the Syrian border town of Afrin, President Donald Trump’s homeland security adviser said Thursday. He also appealed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to focus on “longer-term strategic goals” of a peaceable Syria.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos before Trump’s arrival later, Tom Bossert said Turkey “ought to be mindful of the potential for escalation as they move into Syria and Afrin.”
The United States has previously expressed concerns over Turkey’s military offensive against the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin in northwest Syria but Bossert’s comments were the most direct call for Turkey to withdraw.
Turkish leaders have threatened to expand their drive against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, to other border areas, a move that could put Turkish troops in direct conflict with U.S. forces and their Syrian Kurdish allies. U.S. troops have no presence near or in Afrin, but there are a couple of thousands servicemen stationed farther east.
The United States relies on the YPG — which forms the backbone of a force that drove Islamic State fighters from much of northeast Syria — to patrol areas taken from the extremist group. The YPG, backed by the U.S., now control 25 percent of Syrian territory. Turkey considers the YPG as an extension of outlawed Kurdish rebels fighting Ankara and a national security threat.
U.S. support for the YPG has heightened tensions between the two countries, who are NATO allies. Statements provided by U.S. and Turkish officials following a Wednesday telephone conversation between Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump came as an indication of the deteriorating relations.
The White House said Trump expressed concerns about the growing violence in Afrin and told Erdogan it jeopardizes shared U.S.-Turkish goals in Syria and expressed concern about “destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey” in reference to anti-U.S. statement by Turkish government officials.
Turkish officials disputed the White House readout saying it did not “accurately reflect” the content of their discussions.
The officials said that contrary to a White House statement, Trump did not voice “concerns (about) escalating violence” over Turkey’s cross-border operation or use the phrase “destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey.” The officials provided the information on condition of anonymity in line with government rules.
In further comments suggesting that Turkey could expand the Afrin offensive to other areas, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Thursday that his government won’t allow the creation of a “terrorist” entity along Turkey’s borders. He again accused the United States of not standing by a NATO ally.
“It is astounding and unacceptable … that a country which is supposed to protect NATO’s borders is giving open support to armed entities that target our borders,” Yildirim said.
Bossert said Thursday it would be a “terrible outcome” if Turkish troops clashed with “the proxy forces that we have all been relying on to defeat ISIS, especially if there are U.S. advisers in the region.”
“There could be grave consequences to any miscalculation and escalation.”
He acknowledged Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns about elements of the SDF forces amassed on their southern border … but I think they are smaller concerns than the grander strategic need for a stable and supportable Syria.”
“I’m not in any way critical of the Turkish decisions, but I’m just praying for their longer-term strategic patience,” Bossert said.