ANKARA, Turkey — The Latest on developments related to Syria (all times local):
The Pentagon says Turkey’s military operations in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin are not helpful and threaten to damage the ongoing fight against Islamic State militants in Syria.
Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. says “the degree to which focus is taken off the reason we’re in Syria, which is to go after ISIS, is the degree to which it damages the overall effort.” He used an alternative acronym for IS.
He added that it “is not helpful to have these operations go on. We recognize that. And we’re working with the Turks to try and minimize it.”
He said that so far the U.S. is not yet seeing Syrian Democratic Forces splitting away from the fight against IS in the Euphrates River Valley and go to Afrin. But he said the U.S. is watching that very closely and will try to prevent it.
McKenzie says U.S. military commanders continue to talk with Turkey about the establishment of some type of safe zone along the border. Speaking during a Pentagon briefing, he said it’s “simply an idea floating around right now” and there has been no decision yet.
Asked about Turkey’s assertions that its troops will move on toward the town of Manbij, further from Afrin, McKenzie said the U.S. is clearly tracking movement by Turkey but downplayed the chances of American forces being threatened there.
He said the U.S. and Turkey coordinate closely, including on the whereabouts of U.S. forces in the region. Still, he noted that U.S. troops will defend themselves if necessary.
Dana White, chief spokeswoman for the Pentagon, said she is aware of news reports that Turkey has asked the U.S. military to leave Manbij, but is not aware of any direct conversations about it. At this point, she said, she’s not aware of any changes in the location of U.S. troops there.
NATO’s chief is urging Turkey to limit its use of force in northern Syria where its troops are battling a Kurdish militia that has been a top U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State group.
Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday that he had discussed developments in the region with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other NATO allies.
Stoltenberg noted that Turkey is an ally “that suffers the most from terrorism” and said that “all nations have the right to defend themselves, but this has to be done in a proportionate and measured way.”
The United States has by far the biggest defense budget of any of NATO’s 29 allies and wields most political influence, while Turkey has one of the alliance’s biggest armies.
Tensions between them are an embarrassment for NATO, but Stoltenberg has refrained from criticizing either country and suggests it is a bilateral issue because the alliance has no troops on the ground in Syria.
Turkish officials say President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has traveled to Turkey’s border with Syria, where he is being briefed on Turkey’s military offensive against the Syrian Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin.
Officials from Erdogan’s office said Thursday the Turkish leader is visiting the command center overseeing the offensive, codenamed “Olive Branch,” in Hatay province.
Erdogan was accompanied by Turkey’s chief of military staff, the defense minister and other top officers, the officials said. They provided the information on condition of anonymity, in line with government rules.
Turkey launched the offensive on Jan. 20 to drive out Syrian Kurdish fighters it regards as a security threat because of their affiliation with outlawed Kurdish rebels in Turkey.
— Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey
Turkey’s foreign minister says U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised the possibility of the creation of a 30-kilometer-deep “safe zone” in Syria running along Turkey’s border, during their meeting in Paris earlier this week, to help address Turkey’s security concerns.
Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters on Thursday that, however, trust between Ankara and Washington has to be restored before Turkey would be prepared to begin discussing the issue.
He said Turkey and the United States may have differing “understandings and expectations” as to what a safe zone would entail.
Cavusoglu spoke during a joint news conference with the visiting Austrian foreign minister in Istanbul.
He says: “We would need to restore trust before we can even discuss a serious issue such as forming a safe zone with the United States, let alone accept it.”
In Davos, Tillerson was asked if he had proposed a safe zone to Cavusoglu.
Tillerson says: “No, we discussed a number of possible options but we didn’t propose anything.”
Cavusoglu reiterated that a White House readout about a telephone conversation between Turkey’s Erdogan and President Donald Trump was not an accurate account of the call.
The foreign minister said the readout may have been drafted before the conversation took place.
A Syria war monitoring group says Islamic State militants are waging an intense attack on Syrian government troops stationed in the eastern Deir el-Zour province.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Thursday the offensive extends over several kilometers along the western banks of the Euphrates river in the eastern province, killing over a dozen government fighters and allied militia.
State media reported the attack, saying it has repelled the advancing militants. IS itself announced on its social media accounts it is launching a wide offensive against government troops stationed near Boukamal, a border town in Deir el-Zour.
The militant group has suffered major territorial losses amid separate but simultaneous military campaigns by the Russia-backed Syrian government and the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces in eastern and northern Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim says his government won’t allow the creation of a “terrorist” entity along Turkey’s borders, in further comments suggesting that Turkey could expand an offensive in the Syrian enclave of Afrin to other areas.
In a speech in Ankara on Thursday Yildirim again slammed the United States for backing the Syrian Kurdish militia force instead of standing by a NATO ally. Turkey regards the militia as an extension of outlawed Kurdish rebels fighting Turkey.
Yildirim said: “It is astounding and unacceptable … that a country which is supposed to protect NATO’s borders is giving open support to armed entities that target our borders.”
Yildirim said as many as 300 militants have been “neutralized” — killed, injured or taken captive — so far in the Afrin offensive.
Turkish officials are disputing a White House readout of U.S. President Donald Trump’s phone call with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying it does not “accurately reflect” the content of their discussions.
The officials said Thursday that contrary to a White House statement, Trump did not voice “concerns (about) escalating violence” over Turkey’s cross-border operation against the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria.
The officials said Trump did not use the phrase “destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey” in reference to anti-U.S. statements by Turkish government officials.
They also said that during Wednesday’s call, Trump assured Turkey that the U.S. would no longer supply Syrian Kurdish militia with weapons. Turkey considers the group as “terrorists.”
The officials provided the information on condition of anonymity in line with government rules.