U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has denied that the United States had any intention of building a Syria-Turkey border force, saying the issue has been “misportrayed and misdescribed.”
“Some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” Tillerson told reporters on board an aircraft taking him back to Washington from Vancouver, where he had attended a meeting on North Korea.
“I think it’s unfortunate that comments made by some left that impression,” he said, without giving details. “That is not what we’re doing,” adding that the U.S. owes Turkey an explanation.
He said Turkish officials had been told U.S. intentions were only “to ensure that local elements are providing security to liberated areas.”
The statement came after the top U.S. diplomat met with Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu on the sidelines of the Vancouver meeting.
Turkey said on Jan. 17 that it would not hesitate to take action against Syria’s Afrin district and other areas unless the United States withdrew support for a Kurdish-led force there.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly warned of an imminent incursion in Afrin after Washington said it would help the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, set up a new 30,000-strong border force.
Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group due to its link to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“On counterterrorism, we will continue to work with our allies and partners such as Turkey to address the terror threat in Idlib and address Turkey’s concerns with PKK terrorists elsewhere.” Tillerson said in a speech at Stanford University.
The Pentagon said in an earlier statement it was training “internally focused” Syrian fighters with a goal of preventing an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) resurgence and ensuring Syrians displaced by the war could return to their communities.
“We are keenly aware of the security concerns of Turkey, our coalition partner and NATO ally. Turkey’s security concerns are legitimate,” it said.
Tillerson said the U.S. recognizes Turkey’s “humanitarian contributions and military sacrifices” in Syria defeating ISIL, adding that Washington needs Ankara’s “close cooperation” in achieving a new future for Syria that ensures security for Syria’s neighbors.
The Pentagon said the SDF force is not a new “army” or conventional “border guard” force.
“The U.S. continues to train local security forces in Syria. The training is designed to enhance security for displaced persons returning to their devastated communities,” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said in a written statement sent to state-run Anadolu Agency as Turkey readies to launch an operation against Afrin to clear the area of elements it considers terrorist.
“It is also essential so that ISIS cannot reemerge in liberated and ungoverned areas. This is not a new ‘army’ or conventional ‘border guard’ force,” he said, using another acronym for ISIL.
“These forces will protect the local population and help prevent ISIS from launching new attacks against the U.S. and its allies and partners, pending a longer-term political solution to the Syrian civil war in Geneva,” the statement read.
Pahon also said the Pentagon is aware of Turkey’s concern as a coalition partner and NATO ally and its security concerns are legitimate.
“We will continue to be completely transparent with Turkey about our efforts in Syria to defeat ISIS and stand by our NATO ally in its counter-terrorism efforts,” it added.
The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, officially known as Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), Ryan Dillon’s statement, had said on Jan. 14 that the coalition will establish a 30,000-strong new border security force with the SDF in Syria.