By Missy Ryan and Kareem Fahim
President Trump urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday to scale back his country’s assault on Kurdish positions in Syria, signaling mounting American anxiety that Ankara’s latest military foray will jeopardize the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State and undermine hopes for peace talks aimed at ending the war in Syria.
In a call, Trump told Erdogan that the intensifying conflict in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria “risks undercutting our shared goals in Syria,” according to a White House statement that described the two leaders’ conversation in pointed terms.
The U.S. leader also voiced concern, as tensions spike between the NATO allies, about “destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey,” the White House said.
The call took place less than a week after Turkey launched an offensive on Kurdish positions in Afrin, a Kurdish enclave along Syria’s border with Turkey. Ankara fears that Kurdish fighters in Syria with ties to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey will form a terror threat along the border.
Just last week, Erdogan promised to “drown” Kurdish forces that the United States is training near Syria’s border with Turkey.
Kurdish groups have strengthened their control of areas across Syria in recent years as they have taken up arms in Syria’s civil war and, in some areas, battled the Islamic State with U.S. backing. Now, as that campaign winds down, U.S. officials worry that the days-old Turkish offensive will lead to another uncontrollable surge of violence and complicate a settlement of the war.
On Wednesday, Turkey said that 287 Kurdish or Islamic State fighters had been killed, captured or had surrendered, according to a military statement carried by the semiofficial Anadolu news agency. Despite the Turkish claims, Islamic State fighters are not known to be in the areas Turkey is attacking. A monitoring group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that at least 32 civilians had been killed in the offensive — which Turkey has dubbed “Operation Olive Branch.”
At least two Turkish soldiers have been killed since Saturday. On Wednesday, rockets, apparently fired from Syria, struck the Turkish border town of Kilis, wounding at least eight people who were gathered in a mosque, according to press reports.
The operation has worsened U.S.-Turkish ties, which have been under growing strain in recent months over a number of issues separate from their disagreements about Syria.
Turkey has demanded that the U.S. extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania whom Ankara accused of masterminding an attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has become increasingly frustrated by Turkey’s apparently retaliatory detentions of American citizens, as well as employees of American consulates in the country.
Trump referenced the detention of Americans in his call with Erdogan, the White House said.
Steve Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Trump’s message, while similar to statements from other senior officials, signaled the growing gravity of U.S. concern. But it was unclear whether it would sway Turkish decisions.
Erdogan “has ignored U.S. presidents before when his domestic politics dictated it,” Cook said. “I can’t see him backing off or ratcheting back the Afrin operation given how much he stands to gain from it.”
In a statement distributed to journalists, a Turkish official pushed back on the White House’s characterization of the call, saying that Trump did not express concern about escalating violence around Afrin and questioning the depiction of his criticism of anti-American rhetoric.
About 2,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Syria, but none are in Afrin.
But Turkish officials have said the offensive on Afrin will be followed by an attack on Kurdish-held Manbij to the east, where U.S. forces have conducted regular patrols for more than a year.
Erdogan, in a speech to officials in Ankara on Wednesday, reiterated the threat to advance on Manbij as he chided the United States and, in particular, former president Barack Obama, for betraying Turkey by supporting the Syrian Kurdish fighters.