AMMAN, Jordan — Gen. Joseph Votel said the United States has no intention of withdrawing coalition forces from the northern Syrian town of Manbij, as Turkish leaders had demanded this weekend. As Turkish forces continued the assault on Afrin, the lead of U.S. Central Command on Monday urged Turkey and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, to recognize each other’s legitimate security concerns but focus on the common enemy of ISIS.
Senior U.S. leaders across the government have been in constant talks with Turkish counterparts during the Afrin assault, saying that the U.S. recognizes Turkey’s problems with the Kurdish terrorist group known as PKK, but refusing to give up any territory liberated by the SDF, which include Kurds.
“It’s not our intention right now” to pull back from Manbij, Votel said in Jordan on Monday. He spoke with two reporters traveling with him through the region, including into Raqqa and other parts of northern Syria.
Meanwhile, Russia has begun hosting talks about Syria’s future. The talks, which are being held in Sochi, include representatives from the Assad regime, Iran, and the United Nations. The United States and Syria’s main opposition group declined to participate. Votel said the U.S. hopes that the Sochi talks help lead all parties back to the Geneva process. “That is where the global legitimacy comes in,” he said. “That’s the gold standard, right there: Geneva.”
With Turkish leaders threatening to push into territory protected in part by the U.S. military, Votel has walked the line between both sides but repeatedly has said the U.S. would stand by the SDF counterterrorism force of Syrian Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen that has routed ISIS on the world’s behalf.
“There’s two key objectives we have to keep in mind,” Votel said. “One is we have to address Turkey’s very real concerns about security along their border and terrorist organizations, particularly the PKK that has terrorized their country for a long, long period of time. That is a legitimate concern. We acknowledge that; we have always acknowledged that.
“The other objective we have to do is we have to ensure a lasting defeat of ISIS. And the partner that we have chosen on the ground is the Syrian Democratic Forces, that includes Kurds and Arabs. There’s obviously a rub here — the Kurds that we operate with, the Turks view them as, part and parcel, as PKK. We do not view them that way. Based on our experience with them and our close relationship with them, they have been very, very focused on the mission at hand, from the beginning. Certainly, from the beginning of our participation in 2014, up in Kobani, all the way through, all the operations that have been conducted throughout northeast Syria.”
Votel last week called on the world to come to the SDF’s aid as the coalition shifts to so-called stability operations meant to keep liberated areas safe for civilians to return. The general suggested the world owes a debt to the SDF.
“In many ways, the Syrian Democratic Forces, with the coalition, is taking on the world’s enemy, here. And remember what this enemy is: this is ISIS, this is heavy foreign fighters, from literally a hundred countries from around the world that have converged on this area and established this quasi-state that has now been largely liberated and hopefully soon will be completely liberated and defeated. And so, they have been waging a battle with the assistance of the coalition on behalf of many nations. And they have proven to be the most effective force on the ground in Syria in doing this.”
But for that same reason, outraged SDF supporters across social media have criticized the U.S. for not supporting them instead of Turkey. Votel met with SDF leaders north of Raqqa last Monday. Since then, the general said he is aware of the criticism and concerns about the political decisions on Syria’s future that are out of his hands, but he praised the SDF’s leadership for their loyalty.
“My assessment of the SDF leadership, having met with them a number of times, is they are very mature. They understand what is at stake here. They understand the relationships the United States has, and so, I think they have a very mature approach to this. And I think they do a good job of communicating that down to their forces. So, I think we’ve had a very good, trustworthy relationship with the Syrian Democratic Forces leadership. They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do.”
With Monday dawning in Jordan, Votel offered these expectations to Turkey and the SDF:
“Certainly, Turkey should expect that we are going to do everything we can to honor and protect our relationship as NATO allies and do everything we can to address their legitimate concerns, very legitimate concerns, in that security environment. And for the Syrian Democratic Forces, they have to recognize that we have a NATO partner here. And that requires some balance.”
“Both need to understand that we have to ensure the defeat of ISIS, the lasting defeat of ISIS. That is a common objective that we all share. So, we’ve got to stay focused on that.
And hopefully we’ll have the opportunities to address the other concerns in a setting that is more, that is better accustomed for that – hopefully, a political and diplomatic setting.”