US Calls for De-Escalation as Fighting Between Turkey, Syrian Kurds Escalates

Renewed hostilities between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish fighters are not sitting well with the United States, which warned repeatedly Tuesday that the fighting will only serve to benefit the Islamic State terror group.

Senior U.S. officials acknowledge Turkey has the right to defend itself from terrorist attacks but cautioned that recent Turkish airstrikes, and rocket attacks by Syrian Kurdish forces, are undermining efforts by all sides to contain and degrade IS.

“We oppose any military action that destabilizes the situation in Syria,” Colonel Joe Buccino, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told VOA by email.

“These actions threaten our shared goals, including the continued fight against ISIS to ensure the group can never resurge and threaten the region,” he added, using another acronym for the terror group.

The U.S.-led coalition to defeat IS also called for de-escalation, taking the message to social media.

“These strikes jeopardize the safety of civilians, fracture the hard-fought stability within the region and disrupt our common goal of defeating ISIS,” the coalition tweeted.

Defense officials in Washington tried to hammer home the message later in the day, adding U.S. officials have been in touch with both Turkey and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“We continue to urge for de-escalation on all sides and in our conversations and what we have said publicly, is that these strikes from all sides risk our mission, which is to defeat ISIS,” Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said during a briefing Tuesday, responding to a question from VOA.

Though relations between Washington and Ankara have been strained in recent years, the U.S. and Turkey are longtime allies, with Turkey also a key member of NATO.

But officials in Ankara have bristled at Washington’s willingness to partner with the Kurdish-led SDF in its efforts to defeat IS.

Many of the SDF’s members come from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian-based offshoot of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), labeled by both Ankara and Washington as a terrorist organization.

In Turkey’s view, the SDF and YPG are one and the same. And Turkish officials launched the recent offensive against both groups after blaming them for a November 13 bombing in Istanbul that killed at least eight people and injured dozens more.

Both the YPG and SDF have denied involvement in the bombing, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday suggested the search for justice was nowhere near done despite calls by the U.S. and others for restraint.

“We have been bearing down on terrorists for a few days with our planes, cannons and guns,” Erdogan said in a speech. “God willing, we will root out all of them as soon as possible, together with our tanks, our soldiers.”

Turkish officials claim to have killed or captured more than 180 Kurdish militants during the operation, while accusing the YPG and SDF of killing at least three civilians and wounding at least six more in cross-border mortar attacks.

Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdish officials accused Turkey of launching airstrikes specifically designed to weaken efforts to counter IS.

“The Turkish air attack is a clear message of hope for ISIS terrorist cells,” SDF spokesman Farhad Shami tweeted late Tuesday, referring to reported airstrikes in the village of al-Makman, 70 kilometers from the border with Turkey.

“That area is where the operations against ISIS cells going on, and our forces with the International Coalition often pursue ISIS cells there,” Shami added.

Earlier, Sinam Mohamad, U.S. representative for the SDF’s political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), tweeted that a separate Turkish airstrike hit a base used by both SDF counterterrorism units and by the U.S.

Two members of the counterterror unit were killed, she said.

U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the region, confirmed the strike in an email to VOA late Tuesday.

“While no U.S. Forces were on the base at the moment of this morning’s strike, these actions do place U.S. troops operating in Syria to defeat ISIS at risk,” the statement said.

The U.S. has about 900 troops in Syria and another 2,500 in Iraq as part of ongoing efforts to contain and defeat IS.

“We are going to continue to monitor what’s happening on the ground and make sure that our forces are safe,” the Pentagon’s Singh told reporters Tuesday, adding, “there has been no change to our force posture right now.”

Dorian Jones contributed to this report.