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US Shows Frustration with Turkey Over Latest Clashes in Syria

Turkish soldiers stand on tanks as they prepare for a military operation at the Syrian border town of Karkamis in the southern region of Gaziantep, on August 25, 2016 in Jarablus, Turkey. (Defne Karadeniz/Getty Images)
Turkish soldiers stand on tanks as they prepare for a military operation at the Syrian border town of Karkamis in the southern region of Gaziantep, on August 25, 2016 in Jarablus, Turkey. (Defne Karadeniz/Getty Images)

NATO ally Turkey showed no signs Monday of heeding U.S. pleas to halt its offensive into Syria, cease clashes with U.S.-backed Kurdish militias and focus on their common enemy, the Islamic State.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said one of the main goals of the Aug. 24 push into Syria to take the border town of Jarabulus was to "wipe out" the YPG (People's Protection Units), the U.S.-supported military wing of the PYD, or Democratic Union Party of Syrian Kurds.

Erdogan told a rally that the Turkish military was also prepared to expand the Jarabulus offensive into "other regions [of Syria] if necessary" in a multi-pronged effort to cleanse them of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the YPG, and eliminate safe havens for the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which has mounted an insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

"They will all be cleansed out like a cancer cell. We will find them and punish them," Erdogan said as Turkish tanks and elements of the Free Syrian Army, another militia group backed by the U.S., reportedly moved south of Jarabulus and clashed with the YPG.

Turkey's actions threatened to upend the training and advisory role some 300 U.S. Special Forces troops in Syria have with the YPG and other groups, and also stall the long-planned offensive to retake Raqqa, the self-proclaimed ISIS capital in northeastern Syria.

The U.S. initially provided close-air support to the Turkish drive on Jarabulus during the first two days, but the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department made clear Monday that the support had been withdrawn and that the Turkish actions in Syria were "unacceptable."

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford had called his Turkish counterpart, chief of the General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, on Sunday to urge that the offensive into Syria be halted.

"We've called on both sides not to fight with one another," Carter said of the Turkish forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include the YPG. He also urged the Turks not to move south of Jarabulus.

Carter said he understood Turkish concerns that the YPG was intent on controlling border areas as a prelude to setting up a statelet in northeastern Syria to be called "Rojava," and he renewed U.S. calls on the YPG to retreat east of the Euphrates River.

Carter added that he intended to take up the issue of Turkey's actions in Syria next week in Europe in meetings with Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik. The White House said that President Obama will also meet with Erdogan next week on the sidelines of an economic summit in China.

The U.S. and Turkey have been at odds since a July 15 failed military coup, which the Turkish president has blamed on Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric and former Erdogan ally now living in exile in Pennsylvania. The Turkish thrust into Syria has added another complication to an already multi-sided civil war in its sixth year that has killed more than 300,000, displaced millions and led to a refugee crisis in Europe.

U.S. officials stressed that Turkey's actions would be another distraction from the effort to defeat ISIS and could bolster the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been backed by Russian airstrikes since last September.

The officials are also concerned that the friction with Turkey could affect operations out of the U.S. air base at Incirlik in southeastern Turkey, which has been vital to the U.S. effort to provide close-air support for the U.S.-backed rebel groups inside Syria in the fight against ISIS.

The fighting around Jarabulus also raised the possibility that a U.S.-made weapon supplied to a U.S.-backed militia had killed the soldier of a NATO ally. On Sunday, the Syrian Democratic Forces posted a video purporting to show an anti-tank missile destroying a Turkish tank in a fireball, killing one soldier and wounding three others.

Reuters last year reported that the CIA, working with Saudi Arabia, had supplied hundreds of U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles to various rebel groups in Syria.

In a sign of growing frustration with Turkey, Brett McGurk, the White House special envoy to the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria, used his official Twitter account to criticize the fighting between the Turkish military and the YPG.

"We want to make clear that we find these clashes -- in areas where [ISIS] is not located -- unacceptable and a source of deep concern," McGurk said.

At the State Department, spokesman John Kirby said that, "These actions were not coordinated with the U.S. and we are not providing any support to them. We call on all the armed actors on the ground to retain the focus on Daesh," an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

"Uncoordinated actions like this really aren't getting us further along" to defeating ISIS, he said.

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

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