The U.S. has cut off air and ground support for Turkey’s actions inside Syria in another sign of growing friction with a NATO ally and member of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, a U.S. military spokesman said Thursday.
Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said the U.S. had halted airstrikes backing an offensive by Turkish forces in concert with a rebel militia called the Free Syrian Army against the town of al Bab about 20 miles inside northeastern Syria. U.S. Special Forces advisors accompanying the Turkish military had also been withdrawn, Dorrian said.
“We've not supported the advance to al Bab thus far,” Air Force Col. John Dorrian said. "This is a decision they've made to go into al Bab, but it's not one that the coalition has provided strikes in support of."
On Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that "The Free Syrian Army, with the support of our special forces, is about two kilometers (1.2 miles) away and the siege is continuing as planned" on al Bab. "There is resistance now, but I don't think it will last much longer," Erdogan said at a news conference in Ankara before departing on a trip to Pakistan.
In a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon, Dorrian agreed that the Turks and rebel allies would soon oust the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters from the town.
"They've not yet moved into al Bab and taken the city, but they are very, very close, encountering some pretty tough resistance," Dorrian said. "They do expect to be able to power through that."
Dorrian declined to say when the U.S. cut off support for the Turkish military but suggested that the halt came about in an effort to focus all opposition groups in northeastern Syria – the Turks and various rebel militias – on the fight against ISIS rather than settling scores with each other.
The Syrian Kurdish forces known as the YPG, or Popular Protection Forces, fear that the Turkish moves against al Bab would split territory they control in northern Syria. However, Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group.
In ordering his forces into Syria in August, Erdogan said he intended to clear border areas of ISIS and also strike a blow against the YPG. The dilemma for the U.S. is that the YPG has been the most effective anti-ISIS force in northern Syria and is now leading the long-planned offensive with U.S. support to isolate and eventually assault the self-proclaimed ISIS capital of Raqqa.
The differences on strategy and tactics will have to resolved in high-level talks between the U.S. and Turkey, Dorrian said. “There needs to be some continued, ongoing diplomatic discussions about the manner in which we continue to fight Daesh in northern Syria,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
It was not clear whether differences with Turkey could be reconciled in the next administration.
Erdogan was one of the first world leaders to call President-elect Donald Trump with congratulations and offers of cooperation. However, Erdogan denounced Trump during the campaign over his anti-Muslim comments and once called for the removal of Trump’s name from the Istanbul Trump Towers.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.