The head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, told Turkey in no uncertain terms on Monday he would not withdraw American troops operating with local Kurdish forces in the northern Syrian town of Manbij, as Ankara has demanded.
As the Turkish army continued its assault against Kurds in Afrin, Votel urged his fellow NATO ally and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, to acknowledge each other’s valid security concerns, but focus on continuing the fight against ISIS.
It’s not our intention right now” to pull back from Manbij, Votel said in Jordan on Monday.
Trump administration officials from a variety of agencies have been in near-constant contact with their Turkish counterparts to avoid any escalation or miscalculations on the ground.
But Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have threatened to widen the military’s assault into Manbij to dislodge Kurdish forces there — which are operating in conjunction with American troops.
“There’s two key objectives we have to keep in mind,” Votel said. “One is we have to address Turkey’s very real concerns about security along their border and terrorist organizations, particularly the PKK that has terrorized their country for a long, long period of time. That is a legitimate concern. We acknowledge that; we have always acknowledged that.
“The other objective we have to do is we have to ensure a lasting defeat of ISIS. And the partner that we have chosen on the ground is the Syrian Democratic Forces, that includes Kurds and Arabs. There’s obviously a rub here — the Kurds that we operate with, the Turks view them as, part and parcel, as PKK. We do not view them that way. Based on our experience with them and our close relationship with them, they have been very, very focused on the mission at hand, from the beginning. Certainly, from the beginning of our participation in 2014, up in Kobani, all the way through, all the operations that have been conducted throughout northeast Syria.” [source]
(Analyst comment: If you never thought America combatant commanders (COCOMs) had to be diplomats too, this should prove otherwise. That said, this situation is more serious by the day. If Turkish forces were to attack and kill American troops, not only is that likely to spark a military backlash against Turkish forces but it would prove to be NATO’s biggest challenge to date. It could even destroy the alliance; after all, who would the other nations side with under Article 5, the mutual defense provision? At the same time, in order to preserve its credibility in the region, the U.S. cannot abandon the Kurds — which means there will continue to be friction with Ankara. Who will back down first? Will anyone back down? The fate of NATO is at hand.)