US envoy to Syria says evidence of war crimes during Turkish offensive on Kurds
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US envoy to Syria says evidence of war crimes during Turkish offensive on Kurds

But, he says, Washington hasn’t seen widespread evidence of ethnic cleansing; defense secretary says Turkey ‘heading in wrong direction’ after Trump announces lifting of sanctions

Turkish soldiers and Turkey-backed Syrian fighters gather on the northern outskirts of the Syrian city of Manbij near the Turkish border on October 14, 2019, as Turkey and its allies continue their assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria (Zein Al RIFAI / AFP)
Turkish soldiers and Turkey-backed Syrian fighters gather on the northern outskirts of the Syrian city of Manbij near the Turkish border on October 14, 2019, as Turkey and its allies continue their assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria (Zein Al RIFAI / AFP)

The US believes there is evidence of war crimes being committed during Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, the US special representative in Syria told Congress on Wednesday.

“We haven’t seen widespread evidence of ethnic cleansing,” James Jeffrey said, according to a Reuters report. But “we’ve seen several incidents which we consider war crimes.”

The envoy said US leaders have demanded explanations from Ankara. He did not provide details on the incidents in question, though he mentioned that Washington was looking into reports that white phosphorus was employed, a weapon forbidden for use against civilians.

Meanwhile US Defense Secretary Mark Esper lashed out Thursday at Turkey for its military assault.

James Jeffrey, State Department special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, testifies before the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on October 23, 2019. (NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP)

Speaking at the German Marshall Fund, Esper said Turkey’s “unwarranted” invasion into Syria jeopardizes gains made there in recent years as the US-led coalition and allied Syrian Kurdish forces battled the Islamic State group.

Turkey, he said, is “heading in the wrong direction,” and is getting closer to Russia.

“Turkey put us all in a very terrible situation,” he said, adding that Ankara needs to return to being the “responsible ally” it has been in the past.

His comments come on the heels of US President Donald Trump’s announcement Wednesday that the US is lifting sanctions on Turkey after the NATO ally agreed to permanently stop fighting Kurdish forces in Syria. And he spoke just a day after he was in Iraq to discuss the withdrawal and the Islamic State threat with Iraqi leaders and his military commanders

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

Trump is defending his decision to withdraw about 1,000 American troops from Syria, largely abandoning the Syrian Kurdish fighters who battled IS alongside the US for the last several years. Trump has declared victory, saying the move is saving lives, but it also cedes control of a large swath of the border to Turkey, Russia and the Syrian government.

Trump has agreed that 200 to 300 US troops will remain at the Al Tanf garrison in southern Syria. And Esper has said the US is still discussing a plan that would leave another small residual force in eastern Syria, near oil facilities that are under the control of the SDF. Those troops would help secure the oil from IS.

Esper is expected to meet with Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, at the meeting of NATO defense chiefs Thursday. In previous discussions, Esper and other US leaders were unable to convince Turkey to not invade Syria to push back Syrian Kurdish fighters whom Ankara considers terrorists.

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