The United States announced Sunday it would be working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to train a 30,000-strong border security force in Syria.
The SDF is an alliance of militias led by the Kurdish YPG. Turkey believes the YPG is a branch of the PKK, a banned Kurdish group waging an insurgency in southern Turkey. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, and the EU.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned the US it would be “playing with fire” if it went ahead with the partnership and has promised to “strangle” the effort to secure Syria’s borders “before it’s even born.”
“A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our border, despite all our objections, warnings, and well-meant advice,” said Erdogan Monday during a press conference in Ankara. “What can that terror army target but Turkey?”
The Syrian Government of President Bashar al-Assad denounced the border force as a “blatant assault” on its sovereignty and promised to drive US troops out of the country. Assad’s ally Russia said the border force “stands in direct confrontation” with Russian interests.
The US-led coalition in Syria has already recruited more than 200 new soldiers for the border security force, which is aimed to secure opposition-held territory in the north (bordering Turkey) and the southeast (bordering Iraq) as well as within Syria along the Euphrates River.
“It is absolutely not possible for this to be accepted,” said Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin. Turkey “will continue its fight against any terrorist organization regardless of its name and shape within and outside its borders.”
Erdogan has promised to “vanquish” the US-backed Kurdish forces that control the northwest Syrian region of Afrin, and suggested Monday that an attack is imminent. Turkish forces on Saturday fired warning shots on several Kurdish villages in the area.
Erdogan warned the US to “take your insignia off the uniforms of terrorists so we do not have to bury them in the ground with the terrorists.”
The traditional borders of Kurdistan include areas of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Turkey opposes Kurdish independence in Syria in fear that it would spark a new push for independence among Kurds in Turkey. Turkey also fears the advance of the SDF in northern Syria, believing these territories could be used as a base for PKK fighters to attack troops in Turkey.
The Kurds, on the other hand, insist they need the border force to protect them against threats from Turkey and the Syrian government. “To prevent any attack…there must be a deterrent force that protects the border between our areas and the others,” said Kurdish politician Fawza Youssef. “Until a political settlement is reached in Syria, these areas need protection.”
The US has led an international coalition to aid fighters on the ground battling ISIS militants in Syria since 2014. The intervention has taken place on the sidelines of a 7-year civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced over 11 million people.
ISIS was defeated last year, but US troops will remain in Syria to make sure the terrorist group does not return. There are currently about 2,000 American troops stationed in Syria.
The US and Turkey both oppose Assad, but the US decision to back Kurdish fighters in Syria has strained relations with Ankara.
Assad’s government is backed by Iran and Russia.