ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Despite Turkey’s vows to the contrary, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday he was confident the two nations can agree on a way to protect U.S.-allied Kurdish rebels in Syria after American troops withdraw from the country.
After speaking to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Pompeo said an agreement was a work in progress but can be achieved in a way that allows the Turks to defend their country while leaving alone Kurds who do not pose a threat.
The top U.S. diplomat said he was “optimistic” that Kurds who fought alongside U.S. forces against the Islamic State group in Syria are not threatened by pledges from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to launch military operations against what he terms Kurdish “terrorists.”
"We recognize the Turkish people's right and President Erdogan's right to defend their country from terrorists and we also know that those who aren't terrorists, those who were fighting alongside us all this time, deserve to be protected and we are confident that we can achieve an outcome that achieves both of those: protect the Turks from legitimate terror threats and prevent any substantial risks to folks who don't present terror risks to Turkey," Pompeo told reporters.
Turkey is massing troops near a town in northern Syria held by a U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led force, a war monitor said as Turkish media reported Sunday new reinforcements crossing the borders.
"We had this conversation, many details still to be worked out but I am optimistic we can achieve a good outcome," Pompeo said of his call with Cavusoglu from Abu Dhabi, where he was on the fourth leg of a nine-nation Mideast trip.
He offered no details, but said the U.S. special envoy for Syria and the anti-IS coalition, Jim Jeffrey, had traveled to northern Syria earlier this past week to work on the matter and would be returning to Turkey to continue the discussions.
Turkey considers many of Syria’s Kurdish groups to be terrorists and has pledged to attack them. The threats have intensified in recent days as the U.S. begins the withdrawal process from Syria on President Donald Trump’s orders.
On a visit Friday to Turkish troops stationed near the Syrian border, Turkey's defense minister, Hulusi Akar, said his country was "determined" to fight Kurdish militias it considers terrorists. He said military preparations were ongoing.
Pompeo and U.S. national security adviser John Bolton have made similar assurances to the Kurds, which have been denounced by Erdogan and other Turkish officials.
President Donald Trump’s national security adviser said Sunday that the American military withdrawal from northeastern Syria is conditioned on defeating the remnants of the Islamic State group and on Turkey assuring the safety of U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters.
Comments by Bolton on the matter drew a quick rejection this past week from Erdogan, who said they were a "serious mistake" and that Turkey "cannot make any concessions in this regard."
Turkey insists its military actions are aimed at Kurdish fighters in Syria — the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units, or YPG — whom it regards as terrorists, and not against the Kurdish people. That has been Turkey’s longtime position. Turkey has rejected any role for Kurdish fighters in restoring peace to the war-torn region.