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Pentagon chief says a solo incursion by Turkey into Syria is ‘unacceptable,’ but doesn’t pledge to stop it

An armed Syrian fighter rides a pickup truck near the front line against Turkey-backed forces. (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post)
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TOKYO — Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said Tuesday that the United States does not “have any ambition to abandon” Kurdish units in Syria that face possible military incursion from Turkey, but he stopped short of pledging to defend them.

“Clearly, we believe that any unilateral action by them would be unacceptable,” Esper said of Turkey, speaking to reporters on a flight from New Zealand to Japan. “So, what we’re trying to do now is work out an arrangement to address their concerns, and I’m hopeful we will get there.”

Turkey has massed tens of thousands of troops on its border with Syria. Turkey has said that it wants a safe zone that extends 20 miles south from its border, placing the United States in between a long-standing member of NATO and a U.S. partner that maintains detention centers in Syria that hold thousands of captured Islamic State fighters.

The United States has countered by offering to carry out a joint Turkish-U. S. military operation that would create a safe zone about nine miles deep and 87 miles long, but Turkey has rejected that idea, U.S. officials have told The Washington Post.

The situation has highlighted the long tentacles extending from the campaign to defeat the Islamic State. It also has put a spotlight on about 1,000 U.S. troops that remain deployed in northeastern Syria.

Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, weapons and other support, fought their way through numerous towns and villages to help defeat the Islamic State. They include the YPG, a Kurdish militia that is affiliated with the PKK, a group that has waged a decades-long armed insurgency against the Turkish state. The United States and Turkey both call the PKK a terrorist group, but the United States draws a distinction between it and the YPG.

Esper said a Defense Department team has been “heavily engaged” on the issue in recent days, including with teams on the ground in Syria.

Speaking after Esper’s remarks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he hoped Turkey would move to a “different stage" of its military operations in northern Syria “very soon.” “Turkey cannot feel itself secure as long as the structure on our southern border, which is spreading like cancer cells, with heavy arms that have been provided by our allies, is not eliminated,” he said, addressing foreign ambassadors in Ankara, the Turkish capital.

Erdogan repeated his expectation that the United States will cease arming the Syrian Kurds and reclaim the weapons it has distributed to them.

The Pentagon chief is concerned about the disruption of “mutual interests” of the United States, Turkey and the Syrian Defense Forces. The latter group was named by the United States to refer to an alliance that is predominantly Kurdish.

The discussions come at a strained time in U.S. relations with Turkey, after Ankara decided to purchase the S-400 missile system from Russia. The United States removed Turkey from the F-35 fighter program after numerous warnings, citing concerns that if the stealthy jet is flown in proximity of the S-400 system, Russia could collect information about it.

On that issue, Erdogan described Turkey’s purchase of the Russian system as “commercial, not strategic.”

Esper drew a distinction between Turkey’s issue with the Kurds and the S-400 disagreement, saying that Turkey’s concerns about the PKK “are not new,” while Turkey accepted its first delivery of S-400s last month.

“Turkey has been a long-standing ally of us going back to the early days of NATO,” Esper said. “They’ve been a good partner.”

Karen DeYoung in Washington and Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.