Turkey has told the US it is playing with fire over plans to set up a 30,000-strong Syrian border security force, including Kurdish militia forces, to police the Syrian border with Turkey and Iraq.
Russia said it also opposed the plan, warning it could lead to the partitioning of Syria. For its part, the Syrian regime vowed to win back control of the entire country, including by removing any form of US-backed Syrian Kurdish force. The US plan was a blatant attack on Syrian sovereignty, Syria said.
The US-led coalition on Sunday announced its plan to build a Syrian security force, one of the few insights into the Trump administration’s longer-term thinking for Syria.
Relations between Turkey and the US have been unravelling in recent weeks, partly due to rows over the president’s planned visa restrictions. Turkey is also angry at the support the US continues to provide to the Syrian Kurdish forcesthat formed the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which led the military assault on Islamic State troops based in Raqqa.
The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish YPG, and the plan for a so-called border force, including 15,000 SDF veterans, dashes Turkish hopes that the US would abandon the YPG once the war against Islamic State came to an end. Turkey regards the Kurdish YPG militia as indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) operating inside Turkey, which it regards as a terror group.
The force will deploy along the border with Turkey to the north, the Iraqi border to the south-east and along the Euphrates river valley, which broadly acts as the dividing line separating the US-backed SDF and Syrian government forces backed by Iran and Russia.
Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman for the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said Washington “is taking worrying steps to legitimise this organisation and make it lasting in the region”.
“It is absolutely not possible for this to be accepted,” he said, adding that Turkey “will continue its fight against any terrorist organisation regardless of its name and shape within and outside its borders”.
Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bekir Bozdağ, said the US border force plan was playing with fire, and had not been the subject of consultation with other national forces in the coalition fighting Islamic State.
Turkey, a Nato member, said it would shortly mount an assault on the Kurdish-held Syrian north-western town of Afrin, close to the Turkish border.
The Syrian government warned it “considers any Syrian who participates in these militias sponsored by the Americans as a traitor to their people and nation, and will deal with them on this basis”.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, giving his annual foreign policy press conference, described the US move as provocative and unilateral.
Russia and Iran, at the invitation of the Syrian government, are planning to keep forces inside Syria once the conflict ends. The planned border force may be seen as a bargaining chip, showing the US also has a stake in Syria’s future, including a tool with which to press Russia to negotiate on Assad’s future.
The US has about 2,000 troops in Syria and has said they will stay in the country until it is certain Islamic State is defeated, and progress is made in UN-led peace talks in Geneva on ending the conflict. The US is frustrated Russia has not put pressure on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to negotiate at Geneva, but instead is pressing ahead with its own peace talks, the Syrian national dialogue congress scheduled this month at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.