By Toluse Olorunnipa and Selcan Hacaoglu
President Donald Trump warned Turkey against expanding its military offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, telling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that such action could lead to direct conflict with U.S. forces, the White House said.
Trump urged Turkey “to deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced persons and refugees,” the White House said Wednesday in a readout of Trump’s call with Erdogan. “He urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.”
The harshly worded statement signaled Trump’s growing impatience with moves by Erdogan to crack down on Kurdish fighters that are supported by the U.S. but regarded by Turkey as terrorists. Trump also rebuked Erdogan over recent criticism of the U.S. The Turkish leader has publicly accused America of supporting terrorists by backing Kurdish fighters.
“Trump also expressed concern about destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey, and about United States citizens and local employees detained under the prolonged State of Emergency in Turkey,” the White House said.
Longstanding frictions between the NATO allies over Washington’s backing of Syrian Kurdish fighters escalated on Sunday when Ankara, in defiance of the U.S., sent tanks and warplanes across the border into the Afrin region, to chase the Kurdish forces from a border enclave they control. The offensive on Afrin threatens to rekindle Syria’s seven-year civil war.
Its trigger was a plan by the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State to set up a new armed force in an area of northeast Syria near Turkey’s border, controlled by Kurdish fighters who are working with American troops. Erdogan condemned a statement by one U.S. military official that a “border security force” was being established, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson disowned that description.
The U.S. statement comes after Erdogan vowed to extend Turkey’s offensive in northern Syria to another town, Manbij, where there are U.S. troops embedded with local Kurdish fighters. When Erdogan sent his army into Afrin, Russian forces in that area pulled out, clearing the way for the Turkish advance. The White House statement suggests that U.S. soldiers may not do the same — raising the prospect of a direct clash between the NATO armies, unless Erdogan backs down.
The Kurds were the main ground force in the U.S. campaign to rout Islamic State from Syria, but Turkey regards them as a separatist menace with designs on its territory. The dispute has pushed NATO member Turkey into alliance with Russia and Iran, as the three countries collaborate to impose a Syrian peace plan.