ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — The United States is concerned about a possible Turkish advance into Manbij, held by US-backed forces, but it does not support YPG units who leave anti-ISIS operations to fight Turkish troops in Afrin, a US official has said.
Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon stressed there is a clear distinction between the US-backed Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) and its composite parts, including the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), in an interview published by Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News on Tuesday.
“You are talking about the YPG and the SDF as an umbrella unit but it is not that simple,” Pahon told Hurriyet.
“Those forces are more like a loose federation instead of thinking like the US Army as a whole. They are a federation fighting under one command and one cause. If pieces of that fracture [and] move out, we are not cutting our support for the SDF as a whole, it will be those individual pieces.”
Pahon reiterated that US support for the SDF is limited to anti-ISIS operations, and would not extend to backing the YPG’s resistance against Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch — a military incursion
into the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria which began January 20.
“We cooperate with those units that are working to defeat ISIS. The units that have moved out or moved to Afrin are not US-supported units,” said Pahon
The Pentagon spokesperson did however sympathize with those YPG fighters who are resisting the Turkish operation.
“Some of those people are from Afrin. Your home is attacked and you go back and defend it,” he said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed that the United States may have non-ISIS, geopolitical interests in Syria.
"If the United States says they are sending 5,000 trucks and 2,000 cargo planes of weapons for the fight against Daesh [ISIS], we don't believe this," he told his party's MPs in Ankara on Tuesday, according to Reuters.
On Monday, the Manbij Military Council (MMC), which administrates in the SDF-liberated city, vowed to resist
any potential Turkish military operations east of Afrin.
Manbij fell to ISIS early in 2014 and became a hub for the group’s foreign fighters. ISIS was ousted from the city on August 12, 2016 by the SDF with coalition backing. US troops remain stationed in the area.
Pahon said any Turkish push against the city would only “distract” from anti-ISIS operations.
“We sure hope that the Turks won’t pass Afrin to Manbij,” he explained.
“We are really concerned about this. It has a potential to derail this ISIS fight. It is a huge distraction from all of the work we have put in so far. We really want people to remain focused on the defeat of ISIS. We understand Turkey has these very serious concerns about the terrorism and terrorist groups near and on their borders. We are fully aware of that. We are working with Turkey as much as we possibly can but this operation has a big potential to distract from or to cause us to lose some of the gains we had against ISIS.”
Ankara conflates the YPG with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a named terrorist organization in Turkey that has waged a nearly three-decade long, and sometimes armed, struggle against the Turkish state seeking greater cultural, political, and minority rights.
The YPG denies any organic links to the PKK.
“The United States sees the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization,” said Pahon. “We understand [and] acknowledge Turkey’s concerns about the threat the PKK poses to Turkey. We are assisting Turkey in their operations against the PKK, their efforts to dismantle the PKK as an organization.”
Pahon explained that the SDF elements the US works in Syria with “have been vetted.”
“There has been a review before there was any kind of coalition training and support,” he said. “There are a lot of aspects to this. We are working our best to reassure Turkey that we are there to help...”
Pahon praised America’s long military cooperation with Turkey, a fellow NATO member, and said he hopes diplomacy and communication on the complex Syrian battlefield would help US and Turkish forces avoid armed confrontation.
Speaking at the annual conference of the Norwegian Atlantic Committee in Leangkollen on Monday, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg urged the US and Turkey to seek a political solution
to their differences in northern Syria.
“I have been in contact with Turkish authorities and Erdogan, and with the Americans,” Stoltenberg said, “but the most important thing is contact between those on the ground in Syria, to avoid a further escalation of a difficult situation.”
Turkey has claimed its assault on Afrin is legal under international law, to fight “terrorism,” and to protect its borders. However, Operation Olive Branch has resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties, which Turkey denies having targeted. Additionally, there were no credible reports of an ISIS presence in Afrin prior to the operation.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported 68 civilian killed through Monday.
Afrin health officials say more than 140 civilians have been killed and another 310 injured, Oxfam reported.