US official: "SDF is the only combat credible, capable partner in Northeast Syria"
In a virtual roundtable held by US officials on Thursday, the officials were repeatedly asked questions by Pentagon correspondents regarding Washington's stance on the partnership with Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Northern Syria, particularly in the face of Turkey's reactions.
Dana Stroul, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, and General Matthew McFarlane, Commander of Combined Joint Task Force, stressed in response that they remain committed to the partnership with SDF in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).
The roundtable was attended by CNN's Oren Liebermann, Al Monitor's Jared Szuba, NBC's Courtney Kube, and Washington Post's Dan Lamothe.
Noting that the mission in Syria is carried out "with, and through our local partners," Dana Stroul underlined the crucial role played by SDF, saying:
"Not only are US forces continuing to prosecute unilateral operations against ISIS, but we maintain a robust pace of partnered operations with the SDF who are the only combat credible, capable, and committed partner present in Northeast Syria today willing to join us in this fight."
Asked by CNN's correspondent whether or not the mission has become harder as Syria is "under pressure from Turkey," McFarlane responded by reiterating that SDF is a "lead partner" of US forces. He said:
"Certainly, we continue to emphasize the importance of deescalating any aggression in Northern Syria, as we remain focused on the de-ISIS mission and supporting the SDF as they conduct that."
Referring to Turkey's intensive air raids that recently targeted SDF and even caused patrols to halt in December, Washington Post's Dan Lamothe asked the officials to comment.
"Any activity that detracts the SDF from that mission, where they would be forced to focus on their own force protection or protecting their communities, is an opportunity for ISIS to reconstitute that we should not be giving them. So what we are very consistent with our Turkish allies is we understand and recognize that they have legitimate security concerns and we continue to work with them to address those security concerns, but any sort of large scale incursion that would detract from our core focus on the defeat, the sustainable defeat of ISIS is not a risk that we can afford to take at this point in time."
"Large scale incursions or activities in this area that detract from this focus on defeat ISIS is a risk that the global community cannot afford to take."
Al Monitor's Jared Szuba asked:
"Regarding Turkey's threats to launch an incursion against the SDF, is there any effort to revive previous years' commitments to Turkey to pull back from certain border areas? And is there any serious discussion ongoing with our Turkish allies on compromising on the security structures in the northeast?"
"I do want to emphasize that there is no change to current U.S. policy in Syria. When it comes to the military arm of that broader policy, it is to maintain our force presence in Syria, to support enduring and sustainable defeat of ISIS, and in order to achieve that objective, we remain committed to working with the SDF."
Asked by Courtney if there is still "a potential for a real incursion by the Turkish military," Stroul replied:
"I'm not going to use adjectives to assess Turkish rhetoric, but what I do want to be clear on is that Turkish officials are clear that they do not support the US approach to prosecuting the D-ISIS mission in Syria. However, we both agree that ISIS still remains a threat."