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Turkish president renews threat to launch offensive against Kurds in U.S.-controlled territory in Syria

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a rally in Konya on Dec. 17, 2018. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan escalated his threats Monday of a military attack on U.S.-controlled territory in northeastern Syria, while the U.S. military insisted that the two countries were “making progress” in resolving their differences.

Erdogan said that President Trump had “responded positively” in a Friday telephone call to one Turkish demand — that U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish forces be moved out of the Syrian town of Manbij. But Erdogan said that Turkish operations farther to the east, where Kurdish fighters occupy a series of Syrian border towns, were ready to start “at any moment now.”

Turkey, Erdogan said during a speech in central Konya province, would act “without harming the U.S. soldiers” in border observation posts and interspersed among the Kurdish fighters.

Defense Department spokesman Sean Robertson declined to discuss “operational details” of any U.S. or Kurdish military movements in response to the Turkish threats. He referred questions about the Trump-Erdogan telephone call to the White House.

A senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the administration, said that “the United States and Turkey remain in close consultation at the highest levels regarding the security situation in northern Syria.”

America’s hidden war in Syria

Turkey considers the Kurds of the People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, who have been instrumental as U.S.-equipped forces in the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria, to be terrorists allied with Turkish separatists. As they have taken territory, politicians affiliated with the Kurdish fighters have set up interim government structures in largely Arab areas.

Turkey’s demands have posed a conundrum for the administration, which has said that it is close to defeating the militants but that its campaign against them would suffer without the Kurdish forces who have done most of the fighting on the ground. At the same time, U.S. officials have said they value Turkey as a NATO ally and are trying to address its complaints.

The two governments “are coordinating actively on all issues affecting both Turkish security and the situation in northeast Syria,” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said.

A Defense official noted that Turkey had amassed more military forces along the border, along with Syrian fighters who share its desire to oust the Kurds. The U.S. military is concerned that these fighters, which it refers to as TSO, for Turkey Supported Opposition, may not be wholly under Turkish control, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the situation.

Last week, as Turkish jets bombed positions of Turkish Kurds in northern Iraq near the Syrian border, and Ankara threatened operations in Syria, the Defense Department warned that “unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as U.S. personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern. We would find any such actions unacceptable,” said a statement issued by spokesman Sean Robertson.

Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Trump had also told Erdogan at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina early this month that his administration was “working on” the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Erdogan has charged Gulen, a political opponent who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, with masterminding a 2016 coup attempt. The Justice Department has told Turkey that its submitted evidence was not enough to justify extradition, according to a federal indictment released Monday. The indictment charged two business associates of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn with conspiracy and acting as agents of a foreign government — Turkey — to promote Gulen’s extradition.

Cavusoglu, speaking at a security conference in Doha, said that the FBI had informed Turkey of several ongoing investigations of Gulen’s business operations in this country “and how they have been violating U.S. laws, including tax fraud, [and] visa fraud.”

Past investigations by the FBI into the Gulen organization and its finances have yielded no charges, and the FBI declined to comment on assertions by Turkish officials that it was pursuing new evidence.

Asked about the Turkish claims, the White House official said: “While meeting with President Erdogan at the G-20, the President did not commit to extradite Fethullah Gulen.”

Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.