Mixed Messages From U.S. as Turkey Attacks Syrian Kurds

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The White House sent out a message aimed at mollifying Turkey’s president on Tuesday, suggesting that the United States was easing off its support for the Syrian Kurds.

That message was quickly contradicted by the Pentagon, which said it would continue to stand by the Kurds, even as Turkey invaded their stronghold in northwestern Syria.

The conflicting statements appeared to reflect an effort by the administration to balance competing pressures. Turkey, which has been furious over American support for the Kurds, is a NATO ally, while the Kurds have been critical American partners in the war against the Islamic State.

Turkish soldiers around the area of Mount Bersaya, north of the Syrian town of Azaz, on Tuesday. Credit Saleh Abo Ghaloun/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For its part, the White House disavowed a plan by the American military to create a Kurdish-led force in northeastern Syria, which Turkey has vehemently opposed. Turkey, which considers the Kurdish militia a terrorist organization, fears the plan would cement a Kurdish enclave along its southern frontier.

That plan, a senior administration official said Tuesday, originated with midlevel military planners in the field, and was never seriously debated, or even formally introduced, at senior levels in the White House or the National Security Council.

The official, who spoke to reporters on condition that he not be identified, also said that the United States had no connection to the Kurds in the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin, where the Turkish military has launched an invasion in recent days.

And he drew a distinction between allies — a term he said had legal connotations — and partners in a combat mission, like the Kurds. America’s actions on the ground in Syria, he said, would be driven by a calculation of its interests.

Taken together, the administration’s statements appeared to be a significant attempt to reassure Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who considers the Kurds a threat to his country’s internal stability.

But the Pentagon issued its own statement on Tuesday standing by its decision to create the Kurdish-led force. And a senior American commander praised the partnership with the Kurds, whose help was critical in a major American airstrike on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, over the weekend.

“U.S. forces are training local partners to serve as a force that is internally focused on stability and deterring ISIS,” Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said in the statement. “These local security forces are aimed at preventing the potential outflow of fleeing ISIS terrorists as their physical presence in Syria nears its end and pending a longer-term settlement of the civil war in Syria to ensure that ISIS cannot escape or return.”

The Pentagon has engaged in a rebranding effort, however, as the force was initially described as a border force, leading Turkey to fear the presence of thousands of American-backed, Kurdish troops on its border. Military officials are now saying that its duties will be mainly internal.

The debate over the partnership with the Kurds is taking place as the Kurds continue to play a major role fighting alongside the Americans in Syria.

The military’s Central Command said Tuesday that about 150 Islamic State fighters were killed in American airstrikes near As Shafah, Syria, on Saturday, in one the largest strikes against ISIS in the past year. The Kurdish-led militia, called the Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F., helped guide the airstrikes, American officials said.

“The strikes underscore our assertion that the fight to liberate Syria is far from over,” Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, the commander of Special Operations forces in Iraq and Syria, said a statement. “Our S.D.F. partners are still making daily progress and sacrifices, and together we are still finding, targeting and killing ISIS terrorists intent on keeping their extremist hold on the region.”

Senior Pentagon officials and American commanders say that the Syrian Kurds will most likely serve as the backbone of the allied forces on the ground in Syria for months to come.

Echoing earlier comments by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the commander of the United States Central Command, General Joseph L. Votel, said in an interview last month that American forces would remain in eastern Syria, alongside their Syrian Kurdish and Arab allies, as long as needed to defeat the Islamic State.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was among those at the funeral of a soldier killed in the country’s operation in Syria. Credit Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“What we don’t want to do is leave a mess,” General Votel said, something “worse than what we found.”

Coalition forces are attacking the last remnants of the Islamic State in the Euphrates River valley of Syria, near the Iraqi border. But as that campaign begins to wane, the American partnership with the Kurds is bringing it into ever-more-direct conflict with Turkey.

While the Turkish military incursion into Afrin has seized the world’s attention, American, NATO and Turkish officials have directed their eyes east, to the strategic city of Manbij.