Turkey on Saturday warned France against increasing its military presence in Syria, saying it would be an “invasion,” as tensions between Paris and Ankara remained high.
Temperatures were raised after French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday met a delegation of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) made up of Kurdish and Arab fighters.
Kurdish officials said afterwards that France was planning to send new troops to Manbij — a northern Syrian town held by the Kurdish YPG militia — which Paris denied.
“If France takes any steps regarding its military presence in northern Syria, this would be an illegitimate step that would go against international law and in fact, it would be an invasion,” Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said.
“Especially if they intend to support terror group elements or give direct or indirect protection with armed forces, this would be a really calamitous step,” he added during a visit to the northeastern province of Giresun.
Turkey itself sent troops into Syria and launched an operation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in its Afrin enclave on January 20 and drove out the group from the city on March 18.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly warned that Turkey could extend the offensive to Manbij, which is east of Afrin. But Macron’s office on Friday said Paris was not planning any new military operation on the ground in northern Syria outside the international coalition against Daesh.
Ankara views the YPG as a “terrorist” offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an over three-decade insurgency in Turkey.
The PKK is blacklisted as a terror organization by Turkey and its Western allies. But the US, as well as France, have worked closely with the YPG in the fight against Daesh in Syria, much to Ankara’s anger.
Erdogan on Friday criticized France’s “wrong stance” and rejected Macron’s offer of establishing a dialogue between Ankara and the SDF. “We have no need for mediation,” Erdogan said.
Manbij is highly strategic: The main town on westernmost edge of the stretch of Syrian territory held by the US-backed Syrian Kurds, running along the border with Turkey.
Mixed Kurdish-Arab Syrian forces liberated Manbij from the rule of Daesh in 2016 with help from the US-led coalition. But Kurdish control of the town infuriated Turkey.
US troops first deployed in the area about 16 months ago, after Turkish-backed Syrian forces advanced on areas near Manbij, in a race for control of territories as Daesh collapsed. The deployment prevented repeated clashes between the two rival forces.
The US-backed Syrian fighters at Halwanji say their Turkish-backed rivals downhill increasingly open fire on them, trying to provoke a fight and create a pretext for an incursion.
One commander said it happens as often as three times a week. Another said the “provocations” increased after Turkish troops and their allies successfully captured another town further west, Afrin, from the YPG.
The commanders say their forces do not respond to the fire.
On Thursday, one commander, Abu Ali Nejm, said US troops have increased their presence “in a noticeable way” in the area in recent days to prevent an eruption of violence, following the capture of Afrin, Turkey’s threats and a recent build-up of Turkish troops and their allies.
“They have become part of the front line to reassure the people in Manbij and the military forces and to raise morale,” said Abu Ali, who uses his nom de guerre and is a leading member of the Manbij Military Council, the joint Kurdish-Arab body leading the US-allied forces here.
US Col. Ryan Dillon, of the US-led coalition, said there were no new US bases in the area.
“Our patrols move around. They are not static,” he said.
“The purpose of our forces is to prevent the re-emergence of (Daesh)” and prevent “any type of incursion from any other group in the area.”
Turkey and the US have held talks aimed at defusing the standoff. But a solution remains unclear. Turkey says the YPG power across northern Syria is a threat, and Erdogan has vowed to roll back the Kurdish fighters, starting from Manbij all the way to the Iraqi border.
Abu Ali said the Turkish-backed fighters fired on his forces Thursday, using heavy machine guns and small arms. His troops did not respond, in accordance with orders, and instead reported the incident to US troops nearby, he said.
“We inform, and they come to the front and see for themselves. They have their own contacts or coordination with the Turkish forces, something they don’t have to tell us about,” he said, adding that when the rival side sees the Americans they don’t fire.