US secretary remains concerned over situation in Afrin ahead of Turkey visit

by Wladimir van Wilgenburg   Reuters  


The US Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson during his opening speech in a meeting of a U.S.-led coalition fighting against ISIS, called on Turkey to de-escalate and to keep the battle focused on ISIS.

“In Syria, we remain concerned over recent events in northwest Syria and call on all parties to remain focused on defeating ISIS, de-escalating and resolving the Syrian conflict, and protecting innocent civilians,” he said in an indirect reference to Afrin.

“We are keenly aware of the legitimate security concerns of Turkey, our coalition partner and NATO ally. We will continue to be completely transparent with Turkey about our efforts in Syria to defeat ISIS, and we stand by our NATO ally in its counterterrorism efforts,” he added.

The statements come ahead of a planned visit of US State Secretary Tillerson to Turkey.

“Now, in the category of things that derogate from, detract from, the ability to do that fight, clearly, what has been happening in Afrin is of great concern – no surprise to any of you. We’ve registered that concern,” a senior State Department official said on Monday about the upcoming visit. “It is a major focus not just of the U.S. but of all of our partners in how do we move to a situation where once again focus can be on closing up that fight in the Middle Euphrates Valley [in Deir ar-Zour],” the official said.

The US is especially worried the Turkish attacks on Afrin could “create new IDP flows, new violence, new potential for problems erupting in a different area, the northwest, completely. And there’s an interrelationship; there’s an interlock here. If the SDF, YPG feel threatened, they’re going to draw elements away from that fight to the places where they feel their interests are at stake. And that’s not theoretical; that’s an actual event,” the official said.

“We are very sympathetic, and the Secretary, as other senior U.S. interlocutors have made clear, both civilian and military, the Secretary is very sympathetic to Turkish security concerns. These are not new. These are things we have discussed with the Turks, have sought to discuss with the Turks in great detail. But we do need to keep the objective of the enduring defeat of ISIS out there as a goal which is not made more difficult and other problems created beyond making the D-ISIS fight more difficult. We need to keep that to a minimum,” the official added.

The official, who seemed to affirmatively state that the ‘Turkish focus is on PKK/YPG’ making a rare equivalence not often uttered by representatives of Washington, still said that “we believe there’s a way to work through, walk through, these problems, and that’s why the Secretary is going to Ankara, to have those discussions,” the official said.

The US Secretary in Kuwait warned that ISIS is still a major threat.

“Today, ISIS/Daesh is failed. Approximately 98 percent of the territory once held by ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been liberated,” Tillerson said. “But the end of major combat operations does not mean that we have achieved the enduring defeat of ISIS. ISIS remains a serious threat to the stability of the region, our homelands, and other parts of the globe. Without continued attention on the part of coalition members, we risk the return of extremist groups like ISIS in liberated areas in Iraq and Syria and their spread to new locations,” he added.

Heavy fights are still taking place between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and ISIS, despite Turkish attacks on Afrin.

Layla Abdullah, a spokesperson of the Deir ar-Zour Military Council told the ANHA news agency last week that the US-SDF alliance continues against ISIS, ‘despite the US silence on Afrin’. She said the SDF would not abandon land ‘liberated with the blood of martyrs’.

Due to the ongoing fight against IS, the US will continue to support the SDF and will remain in northern Syria. “The United States will maintain a conditions-based and ISIS-focused military presence in Syria. As part of that presence, we will continue to train local security forces in Syria. We are also working to ensure the local forces we train are effective, professional, accountable, and respectful of human rights. It is essential that these forces be representative of their local communities and do not pose a threat to neighbouring communities or neighbouring countries,” he said.

The Russians are worried that the Americans are creating a ‘quasi-state’ in Syria.

"These steps increasingly look like part of the course towards cresting some quasi-state on a large part of Syrian territory - on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River up to the Iraqi border," Russia FM  Sergey Lavrov said on Tuesday.

Russia does not rule out that the United States intends to stay in Syria for a long time, "if not forever", he went on.