WASHINGTON — Talks with Turkey to prevent a military clash in northern Syria between the two NATO allies are “close and continuing,” Pentagon officials said Monday.
“We continue to talk and work with our NATO ally, Turkey,” Col. Rob Manning, Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters Monday. He said U.S. forces do not operate with Kurdish allies in the Syria border area now under military assault by the Turks.
“We go through great measures to deconflict,” he said.
Turkey sent its troops into Syria more than a week ago to attack and destroy elements of the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish group funded and supported by the U.S. as an ally against ISIS. Turkey calls the groups terrorists.
The initial focus on the Turkish assault has been in the Afrin border region. At least 5,000 civilians have fled the region because of the attack. The U.S. fears its Syrian Democratic Forces allies, which is about half-Kurd and half-Arab, will abandon the battle against ISIS in the Euphrates Valley and move to fight the Turks in order to protect their families.
Last week the Pentagon said it is carefully tracking Turkish military moves toward the Syrian town of Manbij, 60 miles east of Afrin and where the U.S. has forces on the ground. No decision has been made on heeding Turkey’s public requests to move the troops, who are prepared to fight, the Pentagon says.
Central Command Commander General Joseph Votel told CNN on Monday that withdrawing his troops from Manbij was “not something we are looking into” even as Turkey threatened to advance into the Kurd-controlled city.
That city is now defended by a local militia trained to prevent ISIS from returning, Manning said.
Manning said he did not know if the U.S. has agreed to stop arming and training its Syrian allies, another request by Turkey.
A Turkish attack on Manbij could lead to U.S. soldiers being caught in the fighting between Turkish troops and the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia. That would be the first time two NATO allies have clashed.
Manning said the U.S. troops “do not operate with Kurdish forces in Afrin.” He said the Turkish thrust was a “distraction” — the standard official response to describe the incursion — that is harmful to ongoing efforts to defeat ISIS in rapidly shrinking pockets of territory in the Euphrates Valley in the east.
He said the Pentagon would not support any Kurdish efforts to reallocate resources to battle Turkey in the northwest.