BEIRUT — Turkey’s foreign minister assailed the United States on Monday, claiming that American forces in Syria are intentionally stalling the fight against Islamic State militants as an excuse not to cut ties with Syrian Kurdish militiamen as Ankara has demanded.
Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Istanbul that U.S. forces are leaving “pockets” with ISIS militants intact to justify continued cooperation with the Kurdish militia.
Speaking ahead of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later this week, Cavusoglu said Turkey’s ties with the U.S. are at a make-or-break stage and that Washington needs to take “concrete steps” to regain Turkey’s trust.
“Our relations are at a very critical stage,” Cavusoglu said. “Either we will improve ties or these ties will totally break down.”
Ankara is riled over Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG — the top U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State group.
Turkey considers the YPG a “terrorist” group linked to Kurdish insurgents fighting within Turkey’s own borders.
Turkey’s military launched a cross-border operation into the Syrian Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin in northern Syria to rout the YPG from the region.
Ankara has also threatened to expand its offensive to the YPG-held town of Manbij, east of Afrin, where the U.S. has a military presence, setting the scene for a potential showdown between the two NATO allies that back different sides in Syria’s complex and multi-layered civil war.
But the operations in Afrin have been slow-going. In more than three weeks of fighting, Turkey has managed to capture a handful of hilltops and villages. Some 10,000 Syrian opposition fighters — paid, trained, and equipped by Turkey — are also participating in the campaign. Turkey has lost 31 soldiers in the campaign, according to its military.
The U.S. is not militarily invested in Afrin.
Sipan Hemo, commander of the YPG, conceded that Turkey’s operation had taken “some strategic points” in the Afrin areas, but said it was not considered “a major advance.”
Turkey’s martial superiority lies in its airpower. Kurdish fighters have shot down a helicopter but have no answer to the F-16s and other jets flying raids over Afrin.
Syria’s government maintains that Turkey’s operations are “illegal” and a violation of Syrian sovereignty. It is allowing the YPG to send humanitarian assistance through neighbouring government-held territory to Afrin, but not troops or weapons, according to Hemo.
The YPG, and its sister organization, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, are demanding Syria adopts a decentralized and federated political structure, an outcome the government says is unacceptable. But the Kurds and the Syrian government have overlapping interests in the shared fight against ISIS and limiting Turkey’s intervention in Syria.
Hemo, speaking to journalists on a press call over Skype, said the YPG was defending Syria’s sovereignty and would welcome government forces “to enter to defend the borders of Afrin in the face of occupation of Turkey.”
Turkey has kept ground forces in north Syria since 2016, with the triple mission of fighting the Islamic State group, containing Kurdish expansionism and stabilizing the lines of conflict between the government and rebels. It has stationed troops on either side of the Afrin canton, including among al-Qaida-linked insurgents that dominate Idlib, a province in northwest Syria that is the opposition’s largest remaining stronghold in the country.
“If we had the forces, we would have fought this occupation in Idlib, too,” said the YPG’s Hemo.
Meanwhile, Syria’s deputy foreign minister has hailed Syria’s downing of an Israeli warplane over the weekend as a “military achievement,” which he said reflects Syria’s determination to defeat its enemies.
The comments by Faisal Mekdad are the first by a senior government official since Syrian air defenses shot down an Israeli F-16 amid Israeli airstrikes that hit Iranian targets in Syria on Saturday.
Israel says it launched the airstrikes after it shot down an infiltrating Iranian drone. Israel has not confirmed whether its aircraft was actually shot down, which would mark the first such instance for Israel since 1982, in the first Lebanon war.
Mekdad said any party that commits acts of aggression against Syria will “suffer the same fate.”
He spoke late on Sunday during a reception in Damascus to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.