ANKARA (Dispatches) -- Turkey’s foreign minister assailed the United States on Monday, saying that American forces in Syria are intentionally stalling the fight against Daesh militants as an excuse not to cut ties with Syrian Kurdish militiamen as Ankara has demanded.
Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Istanbul that U.S. forces are leaving "pockets” with Daesh militants intact to justify continued cooperation with the Kurdish militia.
Speaking ahead of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later this week, Cavusoglu said Turkey’s ties with the U.S. are at a make-or-break stage and that Washington needs to take "concrete steps” to regain Turkey’s trust.
"Our relations are at a very critical stage,” Cavusoglu said. "Either we will improve ties or these ties will totally break down.”
Ankara is riled over Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG which Turkey considers a "terrorist” group linked to Kurdish insurgents fighting within Turkey’s own borders.
Turkey’s military launched a cross-border operation into the Syrian Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin in northern Syria to rout the YPG from the region.
Ankara has also threatened to expand its offensive to the YPG-held town of Manbij, east of Afrin, where the U.S. has a military presence, setting the scene for a potential showdown between the two NATO allies that back different sides in Syria’s complex and multi-layered war.
But the operations in Afrin have been slow-going. In more than three weeks of fighting, Turkey has managed to capture a handful of hilltops and villages. Some 10,000 Syrian opposition fighters — paid, trained, and equipped by Turkey — are also participating in the campaign. Turkey has lost 31 soldiers in the campaign, according to its military.
The U.S. is not militarily invested in Afrin.
Sipan Hemo, commander of the YPG, conceded that Turkey’s operation had taken "some strategic points” in the Afrin areas, but said it was not considered "a major advance.”
Turkey’s martial superiority lies in its airpower. Kurdish fighters have shot down a helicopter but have no answer to the F-16s and other jets flying raids over Afrin.
Syria’s government maintains that Turkey’s operations are "illegal” and a violation of Syrian sovereignty. It is allowing the YPG to send humanitarian assistance through neighboring government-held territory to Afrin, but not troops or weapons, according to Hemo.
Hemo, speaking to journalists on a press call over Skype, said the YPG was defending Syria’s sovereignty and would welcome government forces "to enter to defend the borders of Afrin in the face of occupation of Turkey.”
Turkey has kept ground forces in north Syria since 2016, with the triple mission of fighting the Daesh group, containing Kurdish expansionism and stabilizing the lines of conflict between the government and rebels. It has stationed troops on either side of the Afrin canton, including among Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents that dominate Idlib, a province in northwest Syria that is the opposition’s largest remaining stronghold in the country.
"If we had the forces, we would have fought this occupation in Idlib, too,” said the YPG’s Hemo.