McCain: Turkey, Kurdish tensions in Syria a looming 'train wreck'

McCain: Turkey, Kurdish tensions in Syria a looming 'train wreck'
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad with pro-communist posts The VA's woes cannot be pinned on any singular administration Overnight Defense: Mattis offers support for Iran deal | McCain blocks nominees over Afghanistan strategy | Trump, Tillerson spilt raises new questions about N. Korea policy MORE (R-Ariz.) said Thursday he foresees a “train wreck” in Syria if the Trump administration doesn’t better address tensions between Turkey and Syrian Kurds.

“Unless something changes, I foresee a train wreck here, and I’m not sure that the administration recognizes how seriously, particularly, [Turkish] President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan views the threat that the Kurds pose,” McCain said.

McCain was speaking to Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he chairs.

U.S. forces in Manbij in northern Syria have recently started acting as a buffer between Turkish and Kurdish forces.

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Kurdish and Arab Syrians, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, retook Manbij from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) last year.

But in recent weeks, Turkish and Kurdish forces in the area have begun clashing with each other. Turkey considers the Kurdish forces, known as the YPG, as terrorists that are an extension of Kurdish separatists.

But the United States considers the Syrian Kurds its most effective ground partner in the country. The rising tensions between the Kurds and the Turks come as the United States considers how best to retake Raqqa from ISIS, including to what extent the Kurds and Turkey should participate.

McCain said a recent visit to Turkey and a meeting with Erdogan impressed upon him how “passionately opposed” the Turkish president is to the Kurdish forces the United States is working with in Syria.

“I’m not sure there’s an understanding of how seriously Erdogan views this issue, and I’m not sure we appreciate the role that Turkey plays in our effort to retake Raqqa, particularly in the use of Incirlik and other activities that require Turkish cooperation,” McCain said, referring to a Turkish airbase the United States uses to launch missions against ISIS.

Asked by McCain whether he agrees the United States should be concerned about conflict between Turkey and the Kurds, Votel said he does.

“To that end, we are trying to take actions to prevent that from occurring,” Votel added.

Pressed by McCain on who is going to “sort all this out,” Votel said it has to be both a military and political effort.

After the hearing, Votel told reporters he believes Turkey and the Kurds are getting the message that the focus needs to be on fighting ISIS, not each other, through the U.S. presence in Manbij.

“I’m pretty confident the situation in Manbij, where we are located, is stabilizing,” he said. “Part of our intention is to operate in a manner that makes it very clear that the coalition forces are there and that our focus is on ISIS. That’s the whole idea here, is keep people focused on the mission at hand, which is defeating ISIS.”