US Claims 'Calm' in Northeast Syria But Turkey Presses Attacks

A Turkish army tank and an armored vehicle are stationed near the border with Syria, in Karkamis, Turkey, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. (IHA via AP)
A Turkish army tank and an armored vehicle are stationed near the border with Syria, in Karkamis, Turkey, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. (IHA via AP)

The Pentagon said Wednesday that relative "calm" prevailed in northeastern Syria, while Turkey was adamant that there was no deal with Washington to stop attacking the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish group that has been essential to the anti-ISIS campaign.

"We have continued to see calm in northern Syria, which is a good thing," Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said after the Turkish General Staff reported that three more Turkish soldiers were wounded and a tank was damaged by rocket fire near the Syrian border town of Jarablus.

In the same area, a Turkish sergeant was killed and three other soldiers were wounded in a similar rocket attack that destroyed a tank over the weekend.

There were no immediate reports of clashes Wednesday between Turkish forces and the U.S.-supported Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units), the Associated Press reported, but Turkish jets carried out airstrikes near Jarablus and Turkish artillery fired on targets west of Jarablus.

However, Cook said at a Pentagon news conference that "We're not seeing the clashes we saw from this weekend" between the YPG and the Turkish forces that crossed into Syria on Aug. 24 with fighters from the Free Syrian Army, another rebel group that is also supported by the U.S.

(The YPG is the armed wing of the Kurdish PYD, or Democratic Union Party. Turkey views the YPG and the PYD as linked to the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which has carried on a decades-long insurgency in southeastern Turkey. The U.S. State Department has designated the PKK a terrorist organization. The YPG has been the main force within the rebel Syrian Democratic Forces, which has liberated much of northeastern Syria from ISIS.)

"This is a complicated situation," Cook said, underscoring the difficulty for the U.S. in trying to keep NATO ally Turkey from attacking the Kurdish force that the U.S. is counting upon to be a main force in the long-planned effort to drive the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria from its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, south of Jarablus.

"We're working with Turkey to address their concerns, their legitimate concerns," about the ultimate goals of the YPG within the Syrian Democratic Forces, Cook said, and "likewise we continue to work with our partners in Syria" who are trained and advised by about 300 U.S. Special Forces troops operating from areas controlled by the YPG in Syria.

Cook said the YPG had agreed to move east of the Euphrates River to meet one of Ankara's demands, but he said some elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces remained in Manbij, south of Jarablus, for clearing operations.

In a major blow to ISIS, the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, drove ISIS from Manbij last month following a lengthy siege.

At the Pentagon on Tuesday, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, called on Turkey and the YPG to stop fighting each other and focus on ISIL, another acronym for ISIS.

"We rely on both Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces to help us in our fight against ISIL. Both of them are critical to it," Votel said. "Turkey certainly plays an extraordinarily important role, with their access, basing, overflight, variety of things that they do. And their operations along the border against ISIL are extraordinarily important and welcome."

At the same time, "we also value the contributions of the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have been a good partner to us in helping address the ISIL threat in the area," he said. "We see the need to continue to work with both of these organizations as we move forward and address our principal threat, which is the Islamic State."

However, Turkey showed no signs of being ready to reach an accommodation with the YPG. Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Turkey would continue to attack the YPG. A cease-fire with the group was "out of the question," Kalin said.

In a commentary for Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper, analyst Yusuf Kanli sought to explain the dilemma for the U.S. in Turkey's cross-border action.

"Operation Euphrates Shield was not and cannot be expected to be limited to rooting out ISIL from Syria's areas bordering Turkey. While that was one of the targets, the bigger and more important target for Turkey was to deliver a strong message to the PYD that Turkey would not let it move toward establishing statehood and would take every possible measure to not allow a Kurdish state carved out from its territory," Kanli said.

"This might not appear something of immediate worry for the United States but is an existential issue for the Turks," Kanli said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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