Syrian Kurds Retreating Beyond Euphrates, Kerry Tells Turkey

Updated on
  • Kerry told Turkey U.S.-backed Kurds are pulling back in Syria
  • Turkey regards Syrian Kurds as extenstion of separatist PKK

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Turkey that armed Syrian Kurdish groups are withdrawing to the east of the Euphrates river, a key aim of the Turkish military’s major offensive in Syria.

Kerry and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also agreed that the U.S. would continue to cooperate with Turkey on its military operation in Syria, a Turkish official said in an e-mail on Thursday, asking not to be identified. Turkey’s campaign is aimed as much at containing Kurdish advances as pushing Islamic State, which has bombed Turkish cities, away from its frontiers.

U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish groups in the fight against Islamic State has led to tensions with Turkey, which regards the PYD and YPG as an extension of the Kurdish separatist PKK it is fighting on its own soil. During a visit to Ankara on Wednesday to try to mend ties further frayed by last month’s attempted coup, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden backed Turkey’s call for the Syrian Kurds to leave their positions west of the Euphrates, and said further U.S. support was contingent on them doing so.

“The PKK and PYD, who have joined their forces in that area, are now trying to expand the lands under their control -- this is not acceptable,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in a televised interview on Wednesday. Turkey’s military operation will continue until the area across the border is cleared of all “terrorists,” including Kurdish fighters, he said.

Autonomous Region

The Turkish incursion highlights the lengths Turkey will go to prevent an autonomous Kurdish region along its southern border, security consulting firm Soufan Group said in a report on Thursday.

"The assault also made clear the limits of U.S. support for the Kurdish rebel forces that have been the most effective ground troops in the fight against the Islamic State," Soufan said. "The Kurds in Iraq and now in Syria have seen international support waver many times as the geopolitical self-interests of their allies shift.”

The Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army was clearing the town of Jarablus on Thursday afternoon after Islamic State militants fled during the military offensive, Turkey’s Defense Minister Fikri Isik said in a televised interview with NTV. More Turkish tanks and earth movers crossed into Syria, while military units were clearing land mines planted by the jihadist group on the Syrian side of the border, NTV said.

Kurdish Advance

The offensive began after PYD affiliates took control of the Syrian town of Manbij from Islamic State, forcing Turkey to speed up its cross-border military plans. A senior Obama administration official said Turkey reacted after U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds in the Manbij area advanced beyond an agreed-upon front line. Manjib is about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Jarablus.

“Here is our agreement with the U.S. -- the PYD, which is now in Manbij, must pull back to the east of the river,” Yildirim said. “Our operations will continue until this happens.”

Part of the Syria Democratic Forces that took over Manbij have moved back east but the bulk of the Kurdish forces remain in the town, Rami Abdurrahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said by phone, citing an SDF commander he didn’t identify. The Kurds in Manbij have extended control over seven villages on the outskirts of Manbij, about 20 kilometers from Jarablus, he said.

The rapid success of the Jarablus operation was proof that Syrian Kurdish groups weren’t the only ones fighting against Islamic State, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.

“Syrian opposition, Free Syrian Army moved Da’esh out of Jarablus,” Kalin said in a Twitter post, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “As a result, the myth that the YPG is the only efficient force fighting against Da’esh has collapsed.”

(Updates with details of Turkey offensive from fifth paragraph.)
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