US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday any Turkish operation into northern Syria would be “unacceptable” and that the United States would prevent unilateral incursions, as tensions between Washington and Ankara simmer, according to Reuters.
On Sunday President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkey, which already has a foothold in northwest Syria, will carry out a military operation in a Kurdish-controlled area east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria.
“Clearly we believe any unilateral action by them [Turkey] would be unacceptable,” Esper told reporters traveling with him to Japan.
“What we’re going to do is prevent unilateral incursions that would upset, again, these mutual interests … the United States, Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] share with regard to northern Syria,” Esper said.
With US backing, the SDF, which includes the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) militia, have taken control over the last four years of much of northeastern Syria from Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants. Ankara sees the YPG as a terrorist organization.
Esper said the United States did not have any “ambition” to abandon the SDF, but stopped short of guaranteeing that the United States would protect them in the event of a Turkish operation.
A team from the Pentagon was in Turkey to speak with Turkish officials about the issue, and Esper said he was hopeful that an agreement could be reached with Ankara.
Esper suggested that a Turkish operation into northern Syria could affect the SDF’s focus on ensuring Islamic State did not retake the territory it once held in Syria and the ability of the US-backed forces to hold the thousands of alleged Islamic State fighters in detention.
The Turkish-led campaign, which has for months been delayed due to resistance from Washington, is aimed at evicting Kurdish YPG forces from a string of border town in Raqqa and Hasaka provinces.
Turkey will pay a higher price later if it does not do what is necessary in northern Syria today, President Erdoğan said on Tuesday after vowing at the weekend to carry out a military operation in a Kurdish-controlled area east of the Euphrates.
In a speech to Turkish ambassadors in Ankara, Erdoğan said that this “process would, God willing, very soon be taken to a new stage.”