U.S. General Joseph Votel said Russia was to blame for recent tensions with NATO ally Turkey over Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
President Vladimir Putin’s government is playing both “arsonist and firefighter”, fueling tensions among parties in the region, including the United States and coalition partners, and then serving as arbiter to resolve disputes, Votel told a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency.
“I am concerned about this role that Russia plays in northern Syria and how it impacts all of our relationships and especially relations between us and Turkey,” he said.
Turkey has been a key partner in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) and, although Washington recognizes its concerns about border security, the military operation in the northern region of Afrin has deflected from efforts to eradicate the ISIS threat, he said.
“The concern we have is that the activities up in Afrin are a distraction to our defeat-ISIS activities right now, and there has been an impact to that.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday reiterated Turkey’s intention to seize Afrin city from Kurdish militants that he says are indistinguishable from fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an autonomy-seeking group in Turkey recognized as terrorists by the United States and the European Union.
The United States has supported the Kurds against ISIS, providing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the Kurds constitute the main fighting force, with weapons and training. Washington and Brussels have expressed concern about the extent of the Turkish incursion into Afrin and warned of a potential humanitarian disaster.
Militants of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have said Syria, Russia and Iran have offered them protection against the Turkish operation in return for abandoning their positions in northern Syria. The plan, they say, is to exert pressure on the United States to leave the adjacent region of Manbij and return mineral resources under control of the Kurds to Damascus.