WASHINGTON — Turkey has proposed a joint U.S.-Turkish deployment in a critical area of northern Syria, home to a key contingent of Kurdish fighters aligned with the anti-ISIS coalition.
The idea, presented Friday, was hailed by Pentagon officials as one way to ease the accelerating deterioration of relations between the two NATO nations over U.S. support for the Kurdish elements, known as YPG, that Turkey alleges are terrorists.
Relations between the two nations, once extremely close partners and allies, strained after Turkey launched an launched an air and ground assault operation against the YPG the northern Syrian area of Afrin in January.
The United States has no troops on the ground in Afrin, where the Turkish offensive has so far taken place. However, Turkey has said it plans to extend the thrust further east to the town of Manbij, where U.S. troops are based, potentially leading to direct confrontation with U.S.-backed units. Pentagon officials have been firm in stating that U.S. troops will shoot back if they come under fire.
Turkey’s proposal is for a joint U.S.-Turkish force in Manbij.
As a condition of that joint force, Turkey also proposed that YPG fighters withdraw to east of the Euphrates river in Syria, which is the unofficial dividing line between the U.S.-led anti ISIS forces and the Syrian government forces supported by Russia and Iran. That suggestion received a less enthusiastic landing at the Pentagon.
Earlier in the week Defense Secretary James Mattis hinted at a possible breakthrough in the festering U.S. Turkey face-off, saying during a NATO conference that the two nations are working to determine “what we can do together” in Syria.
“It’s probably the most complex fighting situation,” Mattis said Thursday. “Sometimes war gives you bad alternatives to choose from.”
On Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met for three-and-a-half hours with Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
After the meeting, the State Department issued a statement, saying: “In the spirit of our longstanding alliance, we reaffirm our commitment to resolving outstanding issues in the bilateral relationship. The two sides agreed to establish a results-oriented mechanism for this purpose. This mechanism will be activated no later than mid-March.”
The statement also said the two sides reaffirm their determination to jointly combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, including against ISIS, PKK, and Al Qaeda. The statement also said both nations recognize the right “to self-defense of our countries against terrorist threats directly targeting our nations” — a nod to Turkey’s rationale for its military excursion into Syria.
Both nations reaffirmed their commitment to the preservation of the territorial integrity and national unity of Syria and that there can only be a political solution to the Syrian crisis, the statement said. “To this end, we will decisively stand against all attempts to create faits accomplis and demogaphic changes within Syria, and are dedicated to coordination on transition and stabilization of Syria,” it said