Pentagon calls Turkey's actions in Syria a 'distraction'

Pentagon calls Turkey's actions in Syria a 'distraction'
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Tensions between the U.S. and Turkey continued to simmer on Thursday as officials on both sides called on each other to scale back military involvement in a key region of Syria.

“Turkey is an ally and we’re going to work with them, but this current issue offensive is a distraction and we have to focus as allies on the mission at hand and that’s defeating ISIS,” chief Defense Department spokeswoman Dana White told reporters at the Pentagon, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terror group.

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NATO ally Turkey last week began an offensive called “Olive Branch” against a Kurdish force known as the YPG in Afrin, a region in northern Syria.

The U.S. has built up the Syrian Kurdish force to help fight ISIS, but Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization within its borders.

The U.S., however, considers the Kurds the most effective force fighting ISIS on the ground in Syria and has provided weapons, training and air support to the group.

“We carefully track those weapons that are provided to them, we ensure that they, to the maximum extent possible, don’t fall into the wrong hands, and we’re continuing discussions with the Turks on this issue,” said Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who spoke alongside White.

McKenzie said he would agree that what’s happening in Afrin “is not particularly helpful to the overall coalition effort,” but the U.S. is working to accommodate Turkey’s national security interests.

“There’s certainly areas that we disagree with. But we think we have an opportunity to perhaps come together, and those discussions are continuing,” he said.

Turkey later on Thursday urged the U.S. to halt its support for the Kurdish YPG fighters or risk confronting Turkish forces on the ground in Syria, Reuters reported.

"Those who support the terrorist organization will become a target in this battle,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said.

“The United States needs to review its soldiers and elements giving support to terrorists on the ground in such a way as to avoid a confrontation with Turkey,” Bozdağ told broadcaster A Haber.

McKenzie said the Pentagon is in talks with Turkey about creating a type of safe zone along the Syrian-Turkish border.

“It’s simply an idea floating around right now,” he said, adding that there is no decision yet made.

Turkey has also asked the U.S. to leave the northern Syrian town of Manbij, according to multiple media outlets.

White said she is aware of such media reports, but is not aware of any direct conversations on removing U.S. troops from Manbij or changes in troop posture there.

“We do not discuss future military actions or plans. We are urging Turkey to deescalate, exercise caution and avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American Forces,” the Pentagon said in a statement after the briefing.

In a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday, President TrumpDonald John TrumpFed saw risks to US economy fading before coronavirus spread quickened Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Britain announces immigration policy barring unskilled migrants MORE urged Turkey to “de-escalate, limit its military actions and avoid civilian casualties,” while also inviting “closer bilateral cooperation to address Turkey’s legitimate security concerns,” according to a White House statement on the call.

Turkey has long complained about U.S. support for the Kurds. The tensions reached a boiling point earlier this month when U.S. officials described a “border security force” — a term they later walked back. Turkish officials worried that such a force would legitimize a Kurdish presence at its border.

“Turkey has a legitimate concern about its internal security. Our focus is ensuring that those internal security forces are able to hold the areas that have been liberated from ISIS. It is a force that is focused solely on internal security. It is not a border force,” White said.