- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2018

President Trump personally pressed Turkey to rein in its bloody offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, with the White House warning Ankara that continued action against U.S.-backed paramilitaries in the country raised the risk of a direct conflict with U.S. forces.

In a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Wednesday, Mr. Trump warned that any expansion of Ankara’s incursion into the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin, which is home to nearly 10,000 Kurdish militiamen, could “risk conflict between Turkish and American forces,” according to a White House readout of the call.

Mr. Erdogan’s office said the Turkish leader in turn urged Mr. Trump to halt the U.S. supply of weapons to the Syrian Kurdish militia, saying the current mission was launched to protect Turkey’s national security.

Mr. Erdogan’s determination to prevent a de facto Kurdish enclave on his border is clashing with the Pentagon’s heavy reliance on Syrian Kurdish fighters to take the lead in the fight against Islamic State remnants still active in the country.

The majority of American forces are concentrated on the eastern side of the Euphrates River valley, working with Arab and Kurdish militiamen under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) banner near Kobane. Afrin, which sits on the western side of the valley, is in territory controlled by Syrian regime forces and their Russian counterparts.

Turkish officials have talked of expanding the Syrian incursion to target the key city of Manbij, which is held by U.S.-allied Kurds and where a number of U.S. special forces advisers are based. It is believed there are no significant U.S. forces in Afrin.

During the call, Mr. Trump urged Mr. Erdogan Turkey “to deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced persons and refugees” resulting from Turkey’s offensive, dubbed Operation Olive Branch.

Turkey claims many of the Kurdish fighters based in Afrin are affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Union Party, or PYD, which is tied to Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

The YPG is the armed faction of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, which Turkey has labelled as a terrorist organization. Turkey has long viewed Afrin as a enclave for YPG elements to launch cross-border terror attacks.

Turkish warplanes bombarded Afrin last September, ahead of the coalition’s push on Raqqa. The attacks forces a large number of Syrian Kurds to abandon the Raqqa campaign to fight Ankara’s forces.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trump vowed to stand alongside Turkey, a NATO ally, in its fight against terrorism “in all its forms, including ISIS, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, al Qaeda and Iranian-sponsored terrorism,” according to the White House readout. But the White House warned the U.S. may be forced to take action if the fight in Afrin expands across the Euphrates.

That warning came hours after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned an expanded assault may be in the cards.

“For now, Afrin is the target,” Mr. Cavusoglu said in a television interview Wednesday. “But in the future, we might also start operations in Manbij and also the eastern part of the Euphrates [valley].”

An estimated 5,000 residents in Afrin, a city of an estimated 1.2 million including 400,000 refugees fleeing ISIS and the ongoing Syrian civil war, have already left the city, according to the United Nations. Kurdish forces are reportedly blocking any further refugees from leaving the city, the Associated Press reports.

Ankara claims Turkish troops and militiamen from the Free Syrian Army have killed at least 268 Syrian Kurdish fighters since Saturday, with Turkish forces reporting “seven to eight losses,” the AP reports.

Meanwhile, U.S. commanders at the Pentagon have laid down their own ultimatum earlier this week to Kurdish militiamen under the SDF based with coalition forces in northeast Syria.

Should Kurdish paramilitaries linked to the U.S.-backed coalition “carry out military operations of any kind that are not specifically focused on ISIS, they will not have coalition support,” Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway told Turkish news outlet Anadolu Agency. If Syrian Kurds under the SDF break away from coalition troops to fight in Afrin, “they are not our partners anymore,” he added.

But representatives from the Democratic Administration of Northern Syria, the confederation of Syrian Arab and Kurdish leaders, say the ongoing violence in Afrin was the result of Russian jockeying to strengthen the hand of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Days ahead of the Afrin incursion, Russian intermediaries offered to deny Turkish warplanes access to Syrian airspace over Afrin — which is patrolled by Moscow’s fighters, administration representative Ms. Sinam Mohammad told reporters Tuesday.

Moscow offered to close the airspace to Turkish airstrikes days before the offensive, in exchange for local leaders acquiescing Afrin and its surrounding areas to regime control, Ms. Mohammed claimed. After local leaders refused the Russian offer, Turkey began its initial round of aerial bombardments and heavy artillery strikes against PYD positions inside Afrin, she said.

The advancing Turkish troops are facing stiff resistance in Afrin, the Associated Press reported. Activists and Kurdish officials say airstrikes are still raining down on several parts of the district, which borders Turkey. On Wednesday, Kurdish officials said airstrikes hit in the vicinity of the Nissan 17 Dam, which provides power and water to the area, without damaging it.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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