The Pentagon said Wednesday that Turkish airstrikes against Kurdish militants in northeast Syria threaten the safety of US troops in the region as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed the operation will continue.
“Recent air strikes in Syria directly threatened the safety of US personnel who are working in Syria with local partners to defeat ISIS and maintain custody of more than ten thousand ISIS detainees,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement.
Ryder’s comments mark the strongest condemnation from the US of Turkey’s operations in northern Syria and Iraq, which began with major airstrikes on Sunday. On Tuesday, the White House said that Turkey had “every right to defend themselves” against the Kurdish militants.
The US has about 1,000 US troops in Syria and backs the Kurdish-led SDF, a group Turkey has been targeting in its strikes. Ankara says the SDF is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which it blamed for a bombing in Istanbul last week that killed six people.
A Turkish drone strike hit a base in the region on Tuesday that is used jointly by the SDF and US troops, but the US said none of its personnel were at the location at the time of the bombing. US Central Command (CENTCOM) said the closest Turkish strike hit about 12-18 miles away from US troops.
Russia also has a presence in the region, and an SDF official said a Russian base was hit by a Turkish strike. Russia is calling on Turkey to avoid a full-scale offensive, but Erdogan is warning that more is coming.
The Turkish leader said Wednesday that the airstrikes Turkey launched this week are “just the beginning” and hinted at a ground invasion. “While we press ahead with air raids uninterrupted, we will crack down on terrorists also by land at the most convenient time for us,” he said.
Turkey is claiming a high death toll in its airstrikes, but the SDF is disputing the numbers. Turkey claimed “254 terrorists were neutralized,” while the SDF said only three of its fighters were killed, along with 18 civilians.