U.S. says Turkish offensive in Syria would threaten regional stability

The United States said it would condemn any escalation of a conflict in northern Syria, warning its ally Turkey against launching a fresh offensive there.

Any military action by NATO member Turkey would threaten regional stability and endanger U.S. troops in Syria, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at a press briefing in Washington D.C. on Tuesday.

“We are deeply concerned about reports and discussions of potential increased military activity in northern Syria, and in particular, its impact on the civilian population there,” Price said. “We recognise Turkey's legitimate security concerns on Turkey's southern border, but any new offensive would further undermine regional stability and put at risk U.S. forces and the coalition’s campaign against ISIS."

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said his country would begin a military offensive in Syria to combat members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militant group allied with the United States and other NATO partners in the war against Islamic State (ISIS). Turkey would establish safe zones 30 kilometres (20 miles) inside Syria to combat what he said were terrorist threats.

Erdoğan’s comments came amid a spat with Finland and Sweden, who have applied to join NATO. Erdoğan says the two countries cannot become members so long as they harbour people linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group fighting for autonomy from Turkey that it says is indistinguishable from the YPG, and offer support for the YPG in Syria. Swedish and Finnish officials were due in Ankara on Wednesday to discuss Turkish concerns.

Erdoğan is testing NATO allies by making the threat, said Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, according to Reuters.

“Erdoğan's style of meeting international challenges is upping the ante - and it almost always works in causing NATO allies to blink," she said. “It worked in the eastern Mediterranean and in Syria in the past - why not try again.”

Turkey has carried out three incursions into northern Syria since 2016 in operations mainly targeting the U.S.-backed YPG. The YPG is affiliated with the PKK, which has fought the Turkish military for four decades at the cost of about 40,000 lives, most of them Kurdish. The PKK is recognised as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, while the YPG is not.

Erdoğan’s pledge to send more troops into Syria comes as opinion polls show his job approval rating and support for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) waning, mainly due to economic difficulties including annual inflation of 70 percent. Turkey is due to hold presidential and parliamentary elections by June next year.

Price urged Turkey to stand by a joint statement made in October 2019, which included a halt to offensive operations in northeast Syria. "We condemn any escalation. We support maintenance of the current ceasefire lines," he said.

The United States, along with Russia, has failed to meet pledges that the YPG/PKK would withdraw 30 kilometres from Turkey’s southern border, the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency said on Tuesday. The groups continue to carry out terror attacks and threaten the Turkish-Syrian border, it said.

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