A Pentagon spokesperson deemed “Operation Olive Branch,” Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria to combat the U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish militia there, a “distraction” but ultimately “not a crisis” between the two NATO member countries in comments Thursday.
Turkey announced the operation last week in response to Pentagon remarks that the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), an American-allied coalition of forces including the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), would help create a “border security force” to prevent the re-emergence of the Islamic State in the country. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and indistinguishable from the U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Unlike the PKK, the YPG has played a key role in helping the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS liberate major jihadist strongholds, including caliphate “capital” Raqqa.
In announcing the operation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to the YPG as a “horde of murderers” and claimed that Afrin is a largely Arab Sunni area colonized by Kurds. Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities inhabit the majority Kurdish area and have expressed fears that they will be ethnically cleaned out of the area if Turkey succeeds in establishing itself there.
The Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga have also warned they would be willing to join the YPG against Turkey, despite years of tensions between the two Kurdish militias.
In addition to Kurdish and religious minorities outraged by the operation, Erdogan has aroused the anger of dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. Syrian officials have warned Turkey that they will give their armed forces permission to shoot at Turkish fighter jets if they violate Syria’s sovereignty, though the Syrian military does not have a notable presence in Afrin, a Kurdish area. The Turkish military shot down a fighter jet belonging to Assad-allied Russian military near its border in 2015, triggering an extended diplomatic row between the two countries.
A potential mass mobilization against Turkey in Syria would leave a significant vaccum for the Islamic State to recover.
“We’re not in a crisis, we’re—Turkey is an ally, and we’re going to work with them, but this current issue is a distraction,” top Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said on Thursday, according to Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency.
White repeated what has become a common phrase among Trump administration officials, claiming Turkey has “legitimate security concerns” in attacking Syria, but insisted that all parties in Syria must “focus as allies and on the mission at hand, and that’s defeating ISIL.”
The Pentagon also confirmed on Thursday that it had not provided any aid to YPG elements in Afrin because they were located west of the Euphrates River, far from the fight against the Islamic State.
There are at least ten different militias, terrorist organizations, and state militaries active in Syria currently, including the Islamic State. Most have targeted each other over the Islamic State. The YPG has largely been an exception.
The Turkish government has claimed that its invasion of Afrin against the YPG has resulted in the “neutralization” of Islamic State terrorists, in addition to Kurdish forces. Both the YPG and American government officials have rejected this claim, noting that there has never been a known Islamic State presence in that area. In a phone conversation with Erdogan, the White House said in a readout this week that President Donald Trump urged Turkey to refrain from “destructive and false rhetoric,” potentially referring to this claim. Erdogan’s officials have denied that Trump said this.
Pentagon officials speaking to reporters Thursday made clear they believed the Islamic State had nothing to fear from Turkey’s operation. Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who also spoke to reporters with White, argued that Operation Olive Branch harmed the fight against the Islamic State because “if someone leaves the fight against ISIS and goes somewhere else, that’s one less person in the fight against ISIS.”
“That’s a powerful concern for us, and we would seek to try to prevent that, first of all by assuring all parties that there is no reason to go back and fight in Afrin,” he asserted.
More alarming to the U.S. military is the concern that Erdogan has made clear he has no interest in keeping his military in Afrin.
“Turkey will rid Syria’s Manbij of terrorists following Afrin,” Erdogan announced in a speech this week, referring to an area east of Afrin where American troops are stationed. “Nobody should be bothered by this. Turkey is not occupying Afrin, only fighting against terrorists there.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also claimed that Turkey has demanded the United States pull out of Manbij entirely before Ankara invades it.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has warned Turkey to limit, not expand, its activities in Syria.
“We urge Turkey to exercise restraint in the military action and the rhetoric,” he told reporters this week. “The violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area in Syria and distracts from the international effort to defeat ISIS.”