BEIRUT — The Trump administration is backtracking on its description of a planned new security force in northeastern Syria amid escalating threats by Turkey to launch a cross-border assault against the Kurdish group involved.
U.S. officials had originally described it as a “Border Security Force” that would guard the perimeter of the self-proclaimed Kurdish enclave taking shape in northeastern Syria.
It would also effectively cement the emerging status of the Kurdish-led entity, which is modeled on the vision of Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish leader jailed for terrorism in Turkey.
Ocalan is the head of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is fighting a guerrilla insurgency against Turkey and is closely allied with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG in Syria.
The YPG is in turn the lead component of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which was created in 2015 to fight the Islamic State and now controls northeast Syria.
Reports of the planned new force provoked an outcry in Turkey, whose leaders have long accused the United States of enabling terrorism by supporting the Kurds in Syria. Iran has also expressed displeasure and on Thursday the Syrian government said it would exert all its efforts to end what it called the “illegitimate” U.S. presence in Syria, according to the Syrian news agency SANA.
Turkey has meanwhile dispatched tanks and troops to the Syrian border, where they appear poised to launch an attack on another Kurdish-controlled enclave outside the area where the United States maintains troops.
Confronted with the prospect of an imminent war that could draw in the United States and force Washington to choose between two important allies, U.S. officials have been hastily recalibrating their descriptions of the force.
The force “was not properly described,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters on Wednesday after meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Vancouver, B.C.
“It’s unfortunate that entire situation has been mis-portrayed, mis-described, some people misspoke,” he said. “We are not creating a border security force at all.”
Rather, he said, the U.S. military will provide training to local elements to help secure areas that were liberated from the Islamic State, with U.S. assistance, over the past three years.
The U.S. military said in a statement emailed to journalists that the force would be “internally focused.”
“This is not a new ‘army’ or conventional ‘border guard’ force,” the statement said. “These security forces are internally-focused to prevent Daesh fighters from fleeing Syria. These forces will augment local security in liberated areas and protect local populations,” the statement said, referring to the Islamic State by its Arabic acronym.
Whether the semantics will be enough to head off the threatened Turkish assault on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin is unclear, however. Turkey has been warning for more than a year that it will attack the enclave in northwest Syria, as well as eventually the entire Kurdish-controlled northeast to prevent the YPG from establishing a permanent presence on its borders.
The United States is “keenly aware of the legitimate security concerns of Turkey, a member of the Global Coalition and a NATO ally,” the U.S. military statement said.
Cavusoglu cautioned after his meeting however that the damage to U.S.-Turkish relations caused by the crisis may prove “irreversible.” He also indicated that “different opinions” within the Pentagon and between the military and the State Department over U.S. support for the SDF may have been responsible for “causing problems,” according to comments quoted by Turkey’s Anadolu news agency.
Part of the confusion is rooted in a lack of coordination in Washington between the different branches of the administration involved in the Islamic State war, said Nicholas Heras of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. “The Afrin crisis shows how difficult it is for U.S. policymakers to walk and chew gum when it comes to Syria,” he said. “This is shoot-from-the-hip policymaking.”