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US Will Continue to Back Kurdish Group Opposed by Turkey: Votel

Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, briefs reporters at the Pentagon, Aug. 30, 2016. (DoD Video Grab)
Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, briefs reporters at the Pentagon, Aug. 30, 2016. (DoD Video Grab)

The U.S. will continue to support Kurdish Syrian militia that Turkey has pledged to wipe out in its offensive into Syria, Army Gen. Joseph Votel said Tuesday.

"They have lived up to their commitment to us" to move east of the Euphrates River to meet one of Ankara's demands, said Votel, head of U.S. Central Command and the top U.S. commander in the Mideast, referring to the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG.

The YPG is the military wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, which Turkey calls a terrorist organization. It's also considered to be by far the most effective rebel group operating in Syria against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

Turkey appeared to dispute Votel's statement that the YPG had moved east of the Syrian border town of Jarablus, which Turkish tanks and mechanized infantry took against little resistance in its Aug. 24 offensive into Syria.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said U.S. Ambassador John Bass was summoned to the ministry to hear Turkey's demands that the YPG pull back east of the Euphrates immediately. Bilgic pointedly said it was "unacceptable" the YPG had failed to live up to U.S. assurances on the withdrawal. The U.S. earlier had said Turkey's actions after taking Jarablus were "unacceptable."

The position of NATO ally Turkey was possibly hardening as its casualties mounted in what Ankara is calling Operation Euphrates Shield. A Turkish sergeant was killed and three other soldiers were wounded Sunday in an anti-tank missile attack on a Turkish tank south of Jarablus.

Three more Turkish soldiers reportedly were wounded Tuesday.

The U.S. initially provided close-air support to the Turkish advance, but it was withdrawn after two days as elements of the Free Syrian Army, another opposition group backed by the U.S. as well as Turkey, reportedly moved south of Jarablus to take several villages.

"We did support them," Votel said of the Turkish forces crossing into Syria, but "we had to withdraw support for that" when it became clear to the U.S. that the Turkish offensive had aims beyond clearing fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria from the border.

Thus far, the Turkish offensive has posed no threat to the estimated 300 U.S. Special Forces troops in Syria training and advising rebel groups, including the YPG, Votel said.

"They know very well where we are," Votel said, but "we may remind them" occasionally.

Despite the frictions with the Turkish government, there also has been no effect as yet on flight operations in the anti-ISIS campaign out of the U.S. air base at Incirlik, he said, adding "I don't see any degradation to the support we're getting" from Turkey at Incirlik.

Votel spoke at a Pentagon news conference at which he sought to walk a fine line between backing a rebel group that has been vital to the anti-ISIS campaign in Syria and antagonizing a NATO ally still shaken by the failed July 15 coup mounted by elements of the military opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Late last month, Erdogan attacked Votel personally, suggesting that he may have sympathized with the coup plotters after Votel voiced concerns about military-to-military relations in the aftermath of the coup attempt in which an estimated 300 were killed and the Turkish parliament was bombed.

Erdogan went on a tirade against Votel: "Who are you? Know your place! You are taking the side of coup plotters instead of thanking this state for defeating the coup attempt."

Votel issued a statement through CentCom denying involvement: "Any reporting that I had anything to do with the recent unsuccessful coup attempt in Turkey is unfortunate and completely inaccurate."

"Turkey has been an extraordinary and vital partner in the region for many years. We appreciate Turkey's continuing cooperation and look forward to our future partnership in the counter-ISIL fight," Votel said, using another acronym for ISIL.

Votel made similar statements at the news conference Tuesday. He said that the U.S. was supporting the Turkish move against Jarablus -- so long as it stayed focus on ISIS.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

Related Topics

Headlines Global Hot Spots Turkey Syria Department of Defense Army Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Richard Sisk

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