US 'deeply concerned' with situation in Syrian city taken by Turkey

US 'deeply concerned' with situation in Syrian city taken by Turkey
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The United States said Monday it is “deeply concerned” about the situation in Afrin, Syria, after Turkey seized the city from a Kurdish militia.

“The United States is deeply concerned over reports from Afrin city over the last 48 hours,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. “It appears the majority of the population of the city, which is predominantly Kurdish, evacuated under threat of attack from Turkish military forces and Turkish backed opposition forces."

On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the capture of the northern Syrian city after a two-month battle against a Kurdish militia known as the YPG.

“Many of the terrorists had turned tail and run away already,” Erdogan said in a speech. “In Afrin’s center, it is no longer the rags of the terror organization that are waving but rather the symbols of peace and security.”

On Monday, Erdoğan said Turkey will push on with its offensive in northern Syria, pressing east to Manbij.

The Turkish offensive has put it at odds with the U.S., a NATO ally. Washington has backed the YPG, which is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, in its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But Ankara considers the YPG terrorists connected to outlawed Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

Although U.S. forces were not operating in Afrin, they continue to operate alongside Kurdish forces in Manbij, meaning a Turkish incursion there could lead to a direct confrontation with the U.S.

On Monday, the Pentagon said the U.S. has been in “close contact” with Turkey.

“We have a results-oriented mechanism for diplomatic talks with Turkey that we’re leveraging,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning told reporters at a briefing.

Asked if the U.S.-led coalition would defend the Syrian Democratic Forces if they are attacked in Manbij, Manning said the U.S. presence there has been made “very clear.”

“We’ve made that very clear that U.S. forces are in Manbij, and again, this goes back to the need to focus on the defeat of ISIS,” Manning said. “It’s been very clear to all parties that U.S. forces are there, and we’ll take measures to make sure that we de-conflict.”

In the State Department statement, Nauert said the U.S. remains committed to Turkey, including its “legitimate security concerns.”

She added that the evacuation of Afrin has added to the humanitarian crisis in the region, with the United Nations reporting hundreds of thousands displaced in or from the district.

“We are also concerned over reports of looting inside the city of Afrin,” Nauert said. “We have repeatedly expressed our serious concern to Turkish officials regarding the situation in Afrin.”

The U.S. called on Turkey, Russia, the Syrian government and other actors in northwest Syria to allow access for humanitarian aid, Nauert said.

Nauert also said the U.S. remains committed to the anti-ISIS campaign and the Syrian Democratic Forces. 

“The fighting in western Syria over the last two months, including in Afrin, has distracted from the Defeat ISIS campaign and provided opportunity for ISIS to begin reconstituting in some areas,” she said. “This is a serious and growing concern. We call on all actors in Syria to remain focused on this significant threat from ISIS.”

Ellen Mitchell contributed.