ABU DHABI – Washington’s top diplomat said Saturday he was “optimistic” a way could be found to protect Syrian Kurds while allowing Turks to “defend their country from terrorists” following a U.S. pullout from Syria.
“We are confident we can achieve an outcome that achieves both of those,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told journalists in Abu Dhabi.
The Gulf emirate is his latest stop in a regional tour aimed at reassuring allies after a shock December announcement by President Donald Trump that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Syria.
Pompeo’s remarks follow tensions between the U.S. and Turkey over the fate of Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies in the fight against Islamic State group jihadis.
Turkey had reacted angrily to suggestions that Trump’s plan to withdraw troops was conditional on the safety of the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, seen by the Turkish government as terrorists.
US-led operations against IS in Syria have been spearheaded on the ground by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.
Ankara sees the backbone of that alliance, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), as a terrorist group linked to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) which has fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.
Pompeo said that Washington recognized “the Turkish people’s right and (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan’s right to defend their country from terrorists.”
But, he added, “we also know that those fighting alongside of us for all this time deserve to be protected as well.”
Pompeo said he had spoken to Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
“Many details (are) still to be worked out but I’m optimistic that we can achieve a good outcome,” he said.
Multiple operations including American-backed assaults have ousted IS jihadis from most of the swathes of Syria and Iraq they captured in 2014.
But Trump’s announcement raised fears of a long-threatened Turkish assault against the Kurds.
On Thursday, Cavusoglu repeated that threat, telling NTV television: “if the (pullout) is put off with ridiculous excuses like Turks are massacring Kurds, which do not reflect the reality, we will implement this decision.”
That came after a tense meeting between Turkish officials and Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton in Ankara, aimed at coordinating the pullout process after Bolton set conditions that appeared to postpone it indefinitely.
The terms included the total defeat of IS — still active in some parts of Syria — and ensuring protection for Kurdish fighters.
The U.S.-led coalition launched operations against IS in September 2014, forming the SDF a year later with some 25,000 Kurdish fighters and 5,000 Arabs — all Syrian.
Backed by U.S. arms and air support, the YPG-dominated group has overrun the de facto Syrian capital of IS, Raqa, and a large part of Deir Ezzor province.
But that stirred Turkish fears of a breakaway Kurdish state on its border.
As well as fighting IS, the YPG has also battled pro-Ankara forces in northwestern Syria, pulling SDF forces away from the battle against jihadis in the east of the country.
Trump’s announcement last month prompted the YPG to call on Syrian government troops to deploy alongside their own forces in the north to help counter a potential Turkish offensive.
A spokesman for the U.S. military said Friday it had begun “the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria.”
But U.S. defence officials quickly sought to clarify that while gear was being pulled out, “we are not withdrawing troops at this stage.”
In an interview with U.S. broadcaster CBS on Saturday, Pompeo said “the president’s guidance is incredibly clear” on the withdrawal.
Syria’s devastating conflict began in 2011 with anti-government demonstrations that were brutally crushed, sparking a complex war involving multiple foreign militias and jihadi groups, as well as regional and international powers including the US.
The withdrawal announcement had also sparked concerns among Arab states and Israel that it could open the way to growing Iranian influence.
Pompeo has pledged to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria, and on Saturday sought to downplay the impact of the U.S. pullout on this goal.
“The fact that a couple of thousands of uniformed personnel in Syria will be withdrawing is a tactical change,” he said.
“It doesn’t materially alter our capacity to continue to perform the military actions that we need to perform.”
The U.S. is looking to create an anti-Iran front — the Middle East Strategic Alliance — bringing together Gulf countries as well as Egypt and Jordan.
Washington is set to convene an international summit in Poland next month focusing on stability in the Middle East, including Iran’s influence.
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