US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that Washington owed Turkey an explanation over reports that it was creating a 30,000-strong border force in northern Syria, adding that the issue has been “misportrayed”.
“That entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” Tillerson told reporters on his way back from giving a speech at Stanford University in California on Wednesday.
According to media reports, Washington is working to establish the border security force with the involvement of Kurdish militias.
Citing several other US officials, reports published earlier this week said that the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) armed group would recruit around half of the new force from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of fighters dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and considered by Ankara to be a “terrorist” group.
The Turkish government said that it would carry out a military operation into Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria if Washington goes ahead with the reported plan.
Furthermore, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said relations between Turkey and the US would be “irreversibly harmed” if Washington forms the force in question, after meeting Tillerson in Vancouver on Tuesday on the sidelines of a gathering to discuss sanctions against North Korea.
Tillerson said in California he had told Cavusoglu that the US’ intention was to train local forces in the fight against remaining ISIL fighters in Syria.
“We have ISIS still attacking in parts of northwest Syria and along the Euphrates valley, so this is just more training and trying to block ISIS from their escape routes,” said Tillerson.
“We understand why they reacted the way they did,” he said, amid Turkish preparations to launch an operation against the YPG.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said various times recently that Turkey’s armed forces had completed preparations for an operation against the Kurdish-controlled region of Afrin in northwest Syria.
He added that the operation will be carried out in cooperation with moderate Syrian rebels supported by Ankara.
Ankara reinforcing border
The US arms shipments began before the launch of a months-long offensive to remove ISIL from the Syrian city of Raqqa. The YPG played a prominent role in the eventual defeat of the group later in 2017.
Tensions between US and Turkey – two NATO allies – remain high, despite Trump saying last November that Washington would no longer supply weapons to the YPG. Ankara says that the US is not keeping its promises it made to Turkey.
Ankara has been reinforcing its southern border by sending armoured vehicles, tanks, and heavy machine guns, according to local media.
Turkey has been working closely with Russia and Iran to end the long-running Syrian war, despite Moscow and Tehran supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – and Ankara backing the anti-Assad opposition.
Syria and Russia made statements in line with Turkey earlier in the week, opposing the reported US plans to establish a border force in the north of Syria.
In 2016, Turkey began a military campaign called Euphrates Shield Operation, which targeted ISIL and the YPG. That eight-month battle officially ended in March 2017.