The US and Turkey have started joint military training in preparation for patrols in the northern Syrian province of Manbij, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday, amid continued tensions between the two countries.
“The training now is under way and we’ll just have to see how that goes,” Mattis told a small group of reporters travelling with him to Paris. “We have every reason to believe the joint patrols will be coming on time, when the training syllabus is complete so that we do it right.”
Turkish and US forces currently carry out independent patrols of the border between territory held by Kurdish militia units and northern provinces secured by Turkey’s “Operation Euphrates Shield”. The NATO allies agreed in June that activities would be conducted together in a bid to ease tensions between the two forces in the north of Syria.
A joint statement released by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the time said the agreements “include steps to ensure the security and stability” there.
“They endorsed a roadmap to this end and underlined their mutual commitment to its implementation, reflecting their agreement to closely follow developments on the ground,” it said. Whilst the statement did not unveil details regarding the plan or its timetable, joint training is the last step before joints patrols.
Turkey has been angered by America’s backing of Kurdish groups in the fight against Daesh. Under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), militias primarily made up of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an offshoot of the designated terror organisation the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have secured swathes of land in the north of Syria.
Since January, Turkey has been undertaking an air and ground offensive in Syria as part of “Operation Olive Branch” against the YPG. After securing Afrin in March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed a desire to move towards Manbij where the US has 2,000 special forces troops, straining relations further.
It still remains to be seen if relations between Ankara and Washington begin to mend. In addition to their differences over Syria, ties have also been tested over the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan who is accused of trying to overthrow the Turkish president’s government in the coup of July 2016.
Turkey’s detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson on terrorism charges has also hit relations between Ankara and Washington.
US President Donald Trump, angered by Brunson’s detention, authorised a doubling of duties on aluminium and steel imported from Turkey in August. Turkey retaliated by increasing tariffs on US cars, alcohol and tobacco imports.
Despite tensions, cooperation on the ground in Syria has continued, with the American military recently sharing intelligence with Ankara that helped Turkey target a high-ranking Kurdish militant leader.
Ismail Ozden was killed on 15 August after the Turkish air force conducted two bombing operations against the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), an offshoot of the PKK. The strike was reportedly authorised after Turkey was informed of Ozden’s location near the Iraq-Syria border, a Turkish diplomat told reporters.
The Pentagon has not denied the allegation, stating only that the US “support Turkey’s counter-PKK efforts in a variety of ways”.
“We recognise the very real threat that the PKK poses to Turkey’s security,” Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesperson, said in a statement.