Pentagon chief: US would prevent 'unacceptable' Turkish invasion of Syria

Pentagon chief: US would prevent 'unacceptable' Turkish invasion of Syria
© Ellen Mitchell

TOKYO — Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperIran labels US deal to set up Syrian safe zone 'provocative and worrisome' Trump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan Japan's Hormuz dilemma MORE said Tuesday that the United States would find a Turkish incursion into northern Syria “unacceptable” and would seek to prevent such an operation.

“Clearly, we believe any unilateral action by them [Turkey] would be unacceptable,” Esper told reporters traveling with him to Japan.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sunday repeated a threat to cross into Syria, going against U.S. wishes, if Turkey’s conditions for a safe zone in the northern part of the country are not met. Turkey wants such a safe zone to be free of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Washington has partnered with to defeat ISIS fighters but Ankara considers a terrorist group.

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“We can only be patient for so long,” Erdoğan said.

Esper said on Tuesday the United States will “prevent unilateral incursions that would upset these mutual interests that ... the United States, Turkey and the SDF share with regard to Syria.”

He added that the United States currently has a Defense Department team in Turkey to negotiate with Turkish officials on establishing a safe zone for the SDF.

“We’ve made progress on some of the key issues,” Esper said, though he declined to share specifics.

The SDF have expressed fears the U.S. would not come to its aid in the event that Turkey launches an operation to remove them from the Syrian-Turkish border following President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE’s announcement last December that he would seek to pull all U.S. troops from Syria.

But Esper said the Pentagon also continues to talk with the SDF in the region “as much as we do with the Turks,” and has no “ambition to abandon” the U.S.-backed fighters.

Asked what Turkey would risk if it launched an operation into Syria, Esper deferred.

“We have a lot of mutual interests in northern Syria. We want to sustain the continued defeat — at least of the physical caliphate — of ISIS. That becomes a question if [the Turks] move in and the SDF is impacted,” Esper said.

“Again, I’m hopeful we’ll work out something to address their security concerns, we just need to take one day at a time and continue to work through the process.”

Relations between the United States and Turkey have soured in the past several years, most recently over Washington’s move to pull Ankara from the F-35 fighter jet program after the NATO ally took delivery of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, which is not operable with the advanced fighter jet.