Turkey tells U.S. to end support for Syrian Kurd militia or risk confrontation

Turkey urges the U.S. to halt its support for Kurdish YPG fighters or risk confronting Turkish forces on the ground in Syria, some of Ankara's strongest comments yet about a potential clash with its NATO ally.

Tensions grow 6 days after Turkey launched air and ground operation in Syria's northwestern Afrin region

Turkey’s rocket attacks in Syria this weekend targeted Kurdish militia, YPG, which the Turkish government considers a terrorist group but the U.S. calls an ally in the fight against ISIS. 2:54

Turkey urged the United States on Thursday to halt its support for Kurdish YPG fighters or risk confronting Turkish forces on the ground in Syria, some of Ankara's strongest comments yet about a potential clash with its NATO ally.

The remarks, from the spokesman for President Tayyip Erdogan's government, underscore the growing bilateral tensions six days after Turkey launched its air and ground operation, "Olive Branch," in Syria's northwestern Afrin region.

In Washington, the Pentagon said that it carefully tracked weapons provided to the YPG and would continue discussions with Turkey.

"We carefully track those weapons that are provided to them, we ensure that they, to the maximum extent possible, don't fall into the wrong hands and we're continuing discussions with the Turks on this issue," Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, joint staff director, told reporters. 

Turkey's targeting of the YPG, which it views as a security threat, has opened a new front in Syria's multi-sided civil war. The Syrian Kurdish group is a main part of a U.S.-backed rebel alliance that has inflicted recent defeats on Islamic State militants.

Possible threat to U.S. efforts

Any push by Turkish forces towards Manbij, part of a Kurdish-held territory some 100 km (60 miles) east of Afrin, could threaten U.S. efforts in northeast Syria and bring them into direct confrontation with U.S. troops deployed there.

"Those who support the terrorist organisation will become a target in this battle," Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said.

"The United States needs to review its soldiers and elements giving support to terrorists on the ground in such a way as to avoid a confrontation with Turkey," Bozdag, who also acts as the government's spokesman, told broadcaster A Haber.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, second left, is briefed by a Turkish Army officer at the command center at the command center in Hatay province, Turkey at the border with Syria, Thursday. (Pool/Associated Press)

The U.S. has around 2,000 troops in Syria, officially as part of an international, U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State. Washington has angered Ankara by providing arms, training and air support to Syrian Kurdish forces that Turkey views as terrorists.

A coalition spokesman declined to address Bozdag's comments.

Kurds call on Syria to defend border

The Kurdish-led autonomous administration that runs Afrin on Thursday called on the Syrian government to defend its border with Turkey in Afrin despite Damascus' stance against Kurdish autonomy.

"We call on the Syrian state to carry out its sovereign obligations towards Afrin and protect its borders with Turkey from attacks of the Turkish occupier," it said in a statement on its website.

Deputy Executive of the Kurdish Association of Canada, Yusuf Celik weighs in on the Turkish military offensive against the Kurds in Syria. 5:01

The Syrian government has said it is ready to target Turkish jets in its airspace, but has not intervened so far. It suspects the Kurds of wanting independence in the long-run and does not recognise the autonomous cantons they have set up in northern Syria.

U.S. forces were deployed in and around Manbij to deter Turkish and U.S.-backed rebels from attacking each other and have also carried out training missions in the area.

U.S. President Donald Trump urged Erdogan on Wednesday to curtail the military operation in Syria, the White House said.

However Turkey has disputed that characterisation of the conversation.

Limited gains

Six days into the campaign, Turkish soldiers and their Free Syrian Army rebel fighter allies have been battling to gain footholds on the western, northern and eastern flanks of Afrin.

Turkish-backed fighters from the Free Syrian Army stand in the Tal Malid area, north of Aleppo, as they fire towards Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) positions in the village of Um al-Hosh, in the area of Afrin, on Jan. 20. (Nazeer al-Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

They appear to have made only limited gains, hampered by rain and clouds, which have limited the air support.

Turkish warplanes struck the northern borders of Afrin, in tandem with heavy artillery shelling, and one civilian was killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

Dozens of combatants and more than two dozen civilians have been killed so far since Turkey launched the offensive, the Observatory has said.

The Turkish military said in a statement it had killed 303 militants in northern Syria since the operation started.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a YPG-dominated umbrella group backed by the United States in the fight against Islamic State, has previously said that Turkey was exaggerating the number of the dead.

Ambassador Selcuk Unal discusses his country's Syrian offensive. 7:14

Relations between Ankara and Washington have neared breaking point in recent months over the U.S. support for the YPG and other issues.

Ankara considers the YPG to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade-long insurgency in Turkey's largely Kurdish southeast. Washington sees the YPG as an effective partner in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

Turkey said the United States had proposed a 30 km (19 mile) "safe zone" along the border with Syria.

"(But) in order for us to discuss the security zone or any other issue with the U.S., we have to re-establish trust," Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters.

A civilian holding a Turkish flag arrives on Jan. 22 to encourage the troops at a Turkish Army staging area in the outskirts of the village of Sugedigi, Turkey, on the border with Syria. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

In Washington, McKenzie said the U.S. and Turkey were continuing talks about a "secure zone" but there had been no final decision.

The Afrin operation has also triggered some concern in Germany, another NATO ally, where the caretaker government said it would put on hold any decision on upgrading Turkey's German-made tanks.

Turkey's use of the Leopard 2 tanks in Afrin has fuelled a debate about Berlin's approval of arms exports.

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