WASHINGTON - The United States is speaking to Turkey to ensure it does not “slaughter” Kurds in Syria as U.S. troops leave, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday.
Pompeo referenced the growing fears for U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters in northern Syria as he defended President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw from the war-battered country.
“The importance of ensuring that the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds, the protection of religious minorities there in Syria. All of those things are still part of the American mission set,” Pompeo told Newsmax, a U.S. news and opinion site popular with conservatives.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned over Trump’s withdrawal order, angering the president, who nonetheless later indicated he would slow down the planned exit.
Pompeo in the interview said that the withdrawal would go ahead but he would not give a more precise time-line so as not to tip off U.S. adversaries.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to rid Syria of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which he sees as linked to the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a bloody insurgency inside Turkey since 1984.
The Kurdish fighters formed the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, who with Washington’s backing have battled the Islamic State (IS) jihadi group and seized about a quarter of Syria.
Syria’s government said Wednesday that the YPG fighters have left Manbij, a key city seized from IS near the Turkish border, in light of the planned U.S. pullout.
Trump, who declared that U.S. troops were no longer needed as IS was defeated, spoke to Erdogan before his troop decision.
But Pompeo said the United States still had “real concerns” with Erdogan, including on detentions of U.S. citizens.
“There are lots of places where we need to work with President Erdogan and the Turkish leadership to get good outcomes for the United States,” Pompeo said.
National security adviser John Bolton and the U.S. point-man on Syria, Jim Jeffrey, are both due to hold talks next week in Turkey.