The United States is finding itself bogged down in northeastern Syria, caught in the middle of an increasingly dangerous fight between two key allies — Turkey and the Syrian Kurds — with neither side giving any sign it will back down.
Further complicating matters, U.S. military and intelligence officials say they see indications that the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS or Daesh, is finding ways to take advantage of the chaos.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday became the latest senior U.S. official to voice his disapproval, decrying Turkey’s military incursion during a hastily scheduled news conference at the Pentagon.
“We oppose and are greatly disappointed by Turkey’s decision to launch a unilateral military incursion into northern Syria,” he said, describing the decision as “impulsive.”
“This operation puts our SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] partners in harm’s way,” he said. “It risks the security of ISIS prison camps and will further destabilize the region.”
U.S. military officials said the Turkish incursion, named Operation Peace Spring by Ankara, has so far encompassed a 125-kilometer stretch along the Turkish-Syrian border, from Tal Abyad to Ras al-Ayn, both Syrian cities.
“It’s been relatively limited in terms of ground forces,” Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Friday, noting the Turkish military has been relying on several commando units and fighters with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army.
Officials with the mainly Kurdish SDF said Turkey was also pounding their positions with artillery, warplanes and armed drones, adding there were no signs Turkish forces would ease off anytime soon, a view shared by the Pentagon.
“I have no indication that they are willing to stop,” Esper said, noting he had emphasized to his Turkish counterpart “the damage this is doing.”
Turkish officials said their goal was to create a 30-kilometer-wide zone along the border to protect Turkey from the Kurdish forces, which they say have long-standing ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Both Turkey and the U.S. see the PKK as a terror group, though U.S. and Western officials say the Kurdish militias in Syria have been an effective and steadfast partner in the fight against Islamic State.
“We are not abandoning our Kurdish partner forces,” Esper said.
The U.S. announced Friday that it was drafting “very significant” new sanctions to pressure Turkey to ratchet down its operations.
“We can shut down the Turkish economy if we need to,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned.
Staying the course
Turkey seemed intent on staying the course, however.
The Turkish operation “will not stop … no matter what anyone says,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
Separately, the Turkish ambassador to the U.S., Serdar Kılıç, said Friday, “The path forward is clear.”
“We are going to clear YPG-PYD elements from that region,” he said, using acronyms for the Kurdish militias. “We gave unreserved support to the United States in its fight against terrorism. We do not expect less.”
Kılıç also promised Turkey would “pay utmost attention in order to avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties.”
Senior U.S. officials said that despite such guarantees, U.S. President Donald Trump had ordered them to negotiate a settlement between Turkey, a NATO ally, and the Kurds. But Turkish officials seemed to dismiss such moves Friday, emphasizing the government does not negotiate with those they see as terrorists.
Speaking by phone through an interpreter, from near the front lines, the top Kurdish military commander described the situation as frustrating and disappointing.
“We are now preparing ourselves for a long military operation that might take more than a year,” SDF General Mazloum Abdi said Friday.
“They want to attack all the Kurdish towns. … They want to destroy all of our area,” he said, adding that in addition to meeting with top U.S military officials earlier in the week, he was taking his case directly to the White House with a letter to Trump.
“I ask him to mediate between us and Turkey, not through war but through dialogue and discussion,” Abdi said.
“We want them [the Americans] just to impose a no-fly zone,” Abdi added. “President Trump is capable of doing this.”
US, SDF forces
For now, U.S. military officials said U.S. forces in northeast Syria remained “co-located” with the SDF, with the exception of “two small outposts” in the area from Tal Abyad to Ras al-Ayn, as part of the fight against Islamic State.
A U.S. commander on the ground, 30 kilometers south of Tal Abyad, also told VOA’s Kurdish service U.S. forces were staying in the area to make sure Turkey’s incursion did not go too far.
“We are still conducting operations,” Milley said at the Pentagon. “Obviously, this incursion that was initiated by the Turks has had some effect.”
Turkish operations inside Syria also appeared to be the cause of a close call for U.S. troops in the town of Kobani, where artillery landed near their position, the Pentagon said in a statement.
Navy Captain Brook DeWalt, director of Defense Press Operations, said in a statement that the explosion occurred “in an area known by the Turks to have U.S. forces present.”
Turkey denied intentionally firing on the U.S. forces, and a U.S. official told VOA that no one was hurt in the explosion.
“There are no indications this was intentional,” the official added without saying who was responsible.
DeWalt said, “U.S. forces have not withdrawn from Kobani.”
Only SDF officials raised additional concerns, accusing Turkey of bombing the abandoned American outposts in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn.
More worrisome, they said, is Turkey’s willingness to target SDF-run prisons, which are home to 9,000 to 12,500 IS fighters captured by Kurdish troops during the U.S.-led campaign to roll back the terror group’s self-declared caliphate.
The SDF said Friday that at least two such prisons had been targeted by Turkish artillery and that the attack on a prison in the city of Qamishli allowed five prisoners to escape.
The SDF’s Abdi said none of the escapees had been recaptured, and that because of Turkey’s actions, the SDF could no longer make the prisons a top priority.
“If they [Turkey] don’t stop the war, our soldiers are going to have to leave,” Abdi said of the troops he had assigned to guard the prisons. He added that some of those troops had already been pulled to fight on the front lines.
“All of these people are going to go to protect their villages, their towns, their families,” he added.
Separately, IS claimed responsibility Friday for a deadly car bomb in Qamishli.
Top U.S. officials, including Trump, have said Turkey would be responsible for any IS prisoners in areas Turkish troops entered.
But there have been no discussions about how such a transfer of control would take place. And the SDF was refusing to cooperate.
“We will never, ever give these terrorists to Turkey,” Abdi said, adding the SDF would take its chances by releasing the IS prisoners if necessary.
“Everybody is attacking us,” he said. “They can attack us, as well.”