New sanctions will not harm U.S.-Turkey cooperation in Syria, says Pentagon

August 6, 2018 GMT

U.S.-Turkish military cooperation in Syria remains intact despite a diplomatic dispute that has brought bilateral relations to their lowest point in years, the Pentagon insisted Monday.

The Trump administration and the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been at odds over policy on Iran, Syria, Russia and the case of an American pastor detained by the Ankara government, a detention that led to unprecedented U.S. sanctions late last week on two top figures in the Erdogan government.

The two NATO allies have clashed most directly over Turkish fears of growing power by U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in Syria. Despite tensions elsewhere in the relationship, plans for joint U.S.-Turkish operations in the northern Syrian town of Manbij to avoid a direct confrontation are still on track, Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday. “Our military-to-military relationship [with Turkey] is something that we remain committed to,” he said.

The meeting last week between Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, head of U.S. European Command, and Gen. Yasar Guler, Turkish chief of general staff, was evidence of that commitment, Col. Manning said, even as the two governments were feuding on multiple other fronts.

Roughly 200 Turkish troops are deployed in and around Manbij, with more forces expected, after a Turkish incursion this year designed to push back Kurdish forces along Turkey’s southern borders. Ankara claims the Syrian Kurds have links to a violent Kurdish separatist movement inside Turkey that has long battled the central government.

Approximately 2,000 American troops are stationed in the city and elsewhere across Syria, according to Pentagon figures, with a mission to flush out the last remnants of Islamic State in the area.

U.S. forces recently sent in deliveries of weapons and equipment, so Turkish units could begin training with the U.S. materiel. Pentagon officials estimate the training period to last four to six weeks, after which joint operations can begin.

Forces from both countries are carrying out independent operations in the city. U.S. troops are focused on clearing Islamic State resistance, and Turkish troops are targeting Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and their Syrian affiliate, Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Turkey has labeled the groups as terrorist organizations, but both are critical elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-backed confederation of Arab and Kurdish paramilitaries that flushed Islamic State from its Syrian capital of Raqqa last year.

There were concerns that the military-to-military cooperation could be undercut by the fight between Washington and Ankara over the detention of North Carolina-born evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been in Turkish custody for 18 months on terrorism charges because of suspected ties to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Mr. Erdogan and his supporters claim Mr. Gulen was responsible for coordinating a failed military coup in 2016.

On a separate front, the Turkish lira fell to a record low against the dollar Monday. Analysts said the slide was partly a result of the Trump administration’s announcement Friday that it was reconsidering Turkey’s duty-free access to the U.S. market, a move that could hurt more than $1.5 billion in Turkish exports. Turkey was one of a number of countries hit with U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs and responded with retaliatory tariffs of its own on select U.S. goods.

Mr. Erdogan fired back Saturday by telling members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that Washington would suffer the consequences.

“Those who think that they can make Turkey take a step back by resorting to threatening language and absurd sanctions show that they do not know the Turkish nation,” he told an AKP rally in Antalya.