US defence secretary says Turkey ‘going in the wrong direction’ in NATO

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels. [German Marshall Fund]

Turkey’s recent behaviour “has put us all in a terrible situation”, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said in Brussels on Thursday (24 October). Ankara’s “unwarranted” invasion into Syria jeopardised the security gains made as the US-led coalition and allied Kurdish forces battled the Islamic State (IS) in the area in recent years, he added.

Esper, an army veteran and former defence industry lobbyist, was sworn in as the secretary of defence in July, after a seven-month vacancy in the post left by his predecessor Jim Mattis, who stepped down last December following clashes with Trump over the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

Speaking at a German Marshall Fund event in Brussels, only hours before a NATO defence ministers meeting expected to focus on Turkey’s operation and the future of the fight against ISIS, Esper had sharp words for Turkey, urging Ankara to go back to being the reliable NATO partner it has traditionally been.

“Turkey put us all in a terrible situation,” Esper said.

“The direction of Turkey in the alliance is going in the wrong direction, the country is spinning more into Russia’s orbit than the Western orbit,” he told the audience.

His remarks came a day after US President Donald Trump defended his decision to move most troops out of Syria and announced that the US is lifting sanctions on Turkey after Ankara agreed to permanently stop fighting Kurdish forces in Syria.

Trump, however, warned he will not hesitate to reimpose sanctions if Turkey does not honour its pledge for a permanent cease-fire.

Esper paid a surprise visit to the Iraqi capital on Wednesday and announced a “deliberate phased withdrawal of US troops from northeast Syria” which will “temporarily reposition in Iraq pursuant to bringing the troops home”. According to media reports, between 200 and 300 US troops are meant to remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf.

Esper’s visit to Baghdad came a day after Russia and Turkey reached an agreement that would send their forces along nearly the entire northeastern border to fill the void left when US forces withdraw.

According to agency reports, Russian military police started deploying on Syria’s border with Turkey on Wednesday, under the deal with Ankara to drive Kurdish fighters from the region.

Explaining why the US did not do more to stop the Turkish military action in Northeast Syria, Esper said that “it was very clear leading up to the incursion that they (the Turks) were committed to do that” and the decision to remove US troops from the area was made after Erdogan made the decision to cross into Syria.

“I’m not about to start a war or strike a NATO ally,” Esper clarified.

Germany’s defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer called earlier this week for the establishment of an internationally controlled security safe zone in Syria in cooperation with European partners, as well as Turkey and Russia.

Asked about the German proposal, Esper said “it’s good for those countries that want to step up and improve security in that part of the world” and it is particularly good “that European partners want to step up and do more”.

However, US Ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, already told reporters a day before the meeting in Brussels, that US participation in a possible German-led monitoring force in Northeastern Syria was “not in the works”.

Last week, Esper said he would press NATO allies “to take collective and individual diplomatic and economic measures in response” to Turkey’s incursion.

French President Emmanuel Macron had earlier decried NATO’s inability to react to what he called Turkey’s offensive “crazy” and said it was time Europe stopped acting like a junior ally when it came to the Middle East.

Although a number of European countries have suspended their arms sales to Turkey over its military campaign in Syria, there is no mechanism in the military alliance to sanction one of its members.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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