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Syrian conflict

Turkey’s President Erdogan threatens to ‘drown’ US-backed Kurdish force in Syria

Washington wants to put 30,000 mainly Kurdish fighters on Syria’s borders, but Erdogan says the troops are terrorists

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 January, 2018, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 January, 2018, 10:14pm

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted in anger Monday to a proposed US-trained force that could lead to Kurdish militiamen being stationed on the Syrian side of Turkey’s southern border, threatening to “drown” the force before it is born.

The US-led coalition confirmed Sunday that it is training recruits for a planned 30,000-strong force that will maintain security on Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq, as well as along the Euphrates River valley.

But its manpower will be drawn from the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, Washington’s favoured proxy in the fight against Islamic State and a major source of contention with Ankara, which views Syria’s Kurdish fighters as an extension of a Kurdish group in Turkey that has battled the central government for decades.

Speaking on Monday at the opening of an Ankara soda factory, Erdogan said it is his government’s duty “to drown this terrorist force before it is born.”

The US-led coalition provided significant military and logistical support to the SDF as it beat back Islamic State militants across Syria. With those largely defeated, the White House announced in November that it was preparing to halt its supply of weapons to the SDF, a mainly Kurdish force that also includes Arab fighters.

The coalition’s announcement that it will now be training a border force comprising SDF members and recruits signals a fresh phase in Washington’s commitment to Syria’s Kurdish fighters as it looks for ways to stabilise the territories they recaptured from Islamic State.

“The US military, whether the commander in chief was Obama or now Trump, wants to accomplish this job with as light a US troop presence as possible,” said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Washington-based Centre for a New American Security.

“The Trump team views Syria as irresistibly fragmented, as a fact and the result of the nature of the Syrian civil war, and President Donald Trump is now responsible for the US zone of influence,” he said.

In comments to the Reuters news agency, the coalition said that the recruits would operate under SDF command and that about 230 individuals are undergoing training in its inaugural class.

Syria’s Kurdish fighters have emerged as one of the main winners of the country’s six-year war, capturing swathes of land in the country’s north.

As a result, Turkey has shifted its focus in Syria from supporting rebel groups seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad to preventing Kurdish fighters from controlling more territory along its border.

Turkey has indicated in recent days that it is considering a military offensive in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria. Erdogan said Monday that Turkish army units had fired dozens of shells toward Kurdish positions in and around Afrin the previous day.

“We are already shooting with howitzers, and we will continue to shoot. Are we going to retreat into our shell and wait for you to hit us?” he said.