Turkey-backed rebels have carried out a war crime at least once, a U.S. envoy has said, adding that an explanation was requested from Turkey.
“Turkish-supported Syrian opposition forces who are under general Turkish command in at least one instance did carry out a war crime and we have reached out to Turkey to demand an explanation,” U.S. special envoy for Syria and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Jim Jeffrey told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 22, CNN International reported.
His remarks were made as a response to a question by Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin regarding Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria that was launched on Oct. 9 with Syrian rebels, dubbed the Syrian National Army, upon U.S. troops withdrawal.
The order for the pullout was announced by U.S. President Donald Trump, who then was subjected to bipartisan backlash for abandoning Washington’s Kurdish-led allies in the fight against ISIS.
Cardin asked Jeffrey if he really believed that “Turkey was going to do this current engagement even if American troops were in the region, making it very likely there would’ve been a conflict between two NATO allies in northern Syria? That’s not believable!”
“If U.S. troops had been given the order to stand and fight against a NATO ally, I think you’re right, the Turks may have thought twice. They have never been given that order,” Jeffrey said in return.
Saying that he wasn’t consulted or advised in advance on Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops, Jeffrey reiterated that the U.S. had told Turkey not to proceed with the incursion against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The envoy also said that the operation was not “inevitable” and that Turkey’s subsequent incursion into the area has been “really tragic.”
“Turkey has not really gained all that much from this, as I said, but in the process has scrambled the entire northeast, undercut our efforts against ISIS and brought in the Russians and the Syrian regime forces in a way that is really tragic for everybody involved,” he added.
When asked about the allegations concerning ISIS militants held captive by the SDF escaping during Turkey’s military offensive, Jeffrey appeared to confirm that about 14,000 to 18,000 ISIS fighters remain at large in Iraq and Syria.
Asked how many hardened ISIS militants had escaped, Jeffrey said the numbers were in the dozens, “but that could change.” He said that for now, the U.S. has no idea how those escaped ISIS fighters will be tracked, accounted for and recaptured.
The envoy also said that the U.S. would work to maintain a relationship with the SDF, of which the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is the leading group.
Turkey’s operation aimed to clear its border with Syria from the YPG, which is accepted as a terrorist organization by Ankara due to its links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Also on Oct. 22, SDF chief Mazloum Kobane sent a letter to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to notify him that all SDF militants withdrew from the relevant area of operations.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, meanwhile, said that the U.S. partnered with the SDF to fight ISIS and not to defend them from Turkey.
“We didn’t sign up to fight a war to defend the Kurds against a longstanding NATO ally and certainly did not sign up to help them establish an autonomous Kurdish state,” Esper told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Oct. 22.