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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

US military retracts statement on 'border force' in Syria

Residents of a Kurdish-controlled Syrian enclave continue to brace for potential attack by Turkish forces

A photo made available by the Dogan New Agency shows Turkish army military trucks transporting armoured vehicles to reinforce the border units in close to the Syrian border on January 16, 2018. AFP
A photo made available by the Dogan New Agency shows Turkish army military trucks transporting armoured vehicles to reinforce the border units in close to the Syrian border on January 16, 2018. AFP

The US military retracted on Thursday previous remarks about the US-led anti-ISIL coalition's plan to set up a new 30,000-strong border force in northern Syria after being contradicted by secretary of state Rex Tillerson.

The US army said in a statement that Operation Inherent Resolve — the military intervention against ISIL in Syria and Iraq — continues to train local security forces in Syria but is not forming a new army.

“This training enhances security for the displaced persons returning to their devastated communities and prevents the re-emergence of Daesh in liberated and ungoverned areas,” said the statement.

“This is not a new ‘army’ or conventional ‘border guard’ force.”

The coalition’s initial announcement of a border force last week added to Turkish anger over Washington’s support for Kurdish-dominated forces in Syria.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to launch a military offensive against the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin, which is controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia that was instrumental in driving ISIL out of parts of northeastern Syria.

Turkey considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — which is the backbone of the SDF — a terrorist organisation for its links to the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that has fought the Turkish government since the 1980s.

Mr Erdogan has threatened military action against Syria’s Kurds before, but in the past week Turkey has escalated by reinforcing troops on its border near Afrin and shelling the area. Mr Erdogan has suggested an assault is imminent.

“We are keenly aware of the legitimate security concerns of Turkey,” the US military's statement said.

Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that his country was not convinced by America’s assurance.

“"Did this satisfy us in full? No, it did not," he told CNN-Turk television in an interview.

"The establishment of a so-called terror army would cause irreversible damage in our relations … it is a very serious situation.”

Read more: Tillerson calls Iran a 'strategic threat' in Syria

Earlier this week, Col Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the anti-ISIL US-led coalition, said the SDF was being transformed into a force to secure Syria’s borders in the areas under its control.

It was Col Dillon’s statements that Mr Tillerson appeared to challenge on Wednesday.

“That entire situation has been mis-portrayed, mis-described, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” Mr Tillerson said.

Col Dillon, who is based in Iraq, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Meanwhile, residents of Afrin were said to still be preparing for the possibility of a Turkish assault.

“There is no way to come in and out of Afrin except for a small passage towards Aleppo,” said Shamseddine Hamo, a politician from Afrin who is now based in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep.

“The Turks have even eliminated parts of the border wall in preparation for crossing in. All these things make us think that storming the area is very close.”

Mr Hamo, who is highly critical of the YPG, noted that while the group is popular among Syrian Kurds, it does not enjoy monolithic support.

The YPG has little tolerance for dissent and has largely driven opposition figures like Mr Hamo from the areas under its control.

Mr Hamo warned, however, that a Turkish invasion was likely to strengthen support for the YPG.

“The people of Afrin will not accept the Turkish army. They look at the Turkish army as an enemy and they will not receive it in Afrin the same way it was received in Idlib,” he said, referring to the northern Syrian province to the west of Afrin where Turkey deployed soldiers late last year.

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Read more:

Erdogan says Turkish operations against Kurdish militias in Syria will be supported by rebels

Syrian Kurds mobilise civilians as Erdogan warns of attack 'at any moment'

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Turkey has long supported Syrian Arab rebel groups in Idlib and other parts of northern Syria in their fight to overthrow the government of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. On Wednesday, members of some of those groups said they were preparing to assist the Turks in an assault on Afrin.

“The preparations are going on for an attack,” said Muataz Raslan, an officer in Jaish Al Nukhba, a rebel group that is part of the Euphrates Shield, an umbrella of Turkish-supported Syrian rebel factions aligned with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

“The FSA will spearhead this attack and Jaish Al Nukhba will be involved.”

Other FSA commanders in northern Syria contacted by The National declined to discuss whether they might be involved in potential operations in Afrin or other Kurdish-controlled areas, but Mr Raslan said he believed military action was inevitable.

“The only way the problem in Afrin can be solved [without military action] is by the withdrawal of the YPG,” Mr Raslan said. “The YPG wants to establish a Kurdish state that it leads.”

Mr Hamo also accused the Kurdish group of forcibly recruiting young men to fight in Afrin.

“They don't care about Afrin. They care about the continuity of their rule,” Mr Hamo said. “They collect taxes from the poor people. They trade with the blood of people.”

Despite the military build-up, Mr Hamo said he also did not rule out the possibility that Mr Erdogan’s threats were calculated to encourage the US to withdraw or at least reduce support for the SDF, rather than a prelude to a messy military adventure.

“There is a possibility that this pressure is part of an agreement with the Russians to return the city to Syrian government control,” Mr Hamo said. “This makes sense to me.”

The Russian government, which has intervened in Syria’s civil war on behalf of the government, has previously helped negotiate deals between the Turks and Syrians regarding control of areas on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Tensions around Afrin also underscore how strained US-Turkey relations have become.

“What Turkey wants from Afrin and from the north of Syria in general is that this area be void of the mercenary terrorists who work for America,” said Bakir Atajan, a Turkish political analyst based in Istanbul.

“The USA was an ally of Turkey. Now Turkish people think the USA has become an enemy.”