US anti-ISIL chief hails Turkey’s border efforts

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Turkey has made good strides in securing its border with Syria, President Barack Obama’s envoy to the anti-Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) coalition said on Feb. 10.      

The U.S. envoy to the coalition against ISIL, Brett McGurk, said Turkish officials “are doing quite a lot” to ensure that ISIL fighters cannot exploit the border, including building berms, increasing border patrols, improving intelligence sharing, and carrying out cross-border artillery strikes.      

“This is having an impact. It is much harder for ISIL fighters to get into Syria now than it was even six months ago and once they’re in it is much harder for them to get out,” McGurk said in his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Feb. 10.      

“We know from their [ISIL] own publications that they’re now telling their fighters not to come to Syria, but to go elsewhere, to Libya for example,” he told lawmakers. 

“That’s our objective – to stop them getting in. And if they do get in they’ll never get out because they will die in Iraq and Syria,” he added.     

Due to successive battlefield defeats, notably in the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane, ISIL has been left with only a 98-kilometer stretch of border, which McGurk described as “its remaining sole outlet to the world.”

Meanwhile, on the same day, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner stressed that the U.S.’s commitment to its alliance with Turkey should not be questioned, amid a dispute between the two countries over the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).      

“Turkey is a NATO ally, a strong partner within the anti-Daesh coalition and we appreciate their support,” Toner said on Feb. 10, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL.      

“We coordinate closely with them across a variety of fronts and all lines of effort ... we’re going to continue those discussions [on the PYD] moving forward, but I think no one should question our commitment to our alliance with Turkey,” he added.

The row between Ankara and Washington emerged after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the U.S. should “choose between Turkey and the PYD” as a partner. Turkey regards the PYD as a terrorist organization, which it sees it as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with which it has been in armed clashes since the 1980s.  

Toner said the U.S. takes Turkey’s concerns about the PYD “very seriously” and is in “constant” communication with Ankara to address those concerns. But he also reiterated that both countries can “disagree on the YPG,” referring to the military wing of the PYD. 

He said the U.S. believes the YPG is focused on fighting ISIL in Syria and is an “effective fighting force” on the ground, much like the Syrian-Arab communities or Syrian-Turkmen communities in the region.      

The difference in perspectives caused tension around the Syria peace talks in Geneva in January, with disagreements over whether the PYD should be invited.      

After strong opposition from the Turkish government, U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura decided to leave the PYD out of the meetings.      

While the negotiations continued in Geneva without the PYD, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke with the PYD leadership about “continued cooperation in the fight against Daesh in northern Syria.”       
One day later, de Mistura announced that the talks were suspended and would continue in late February.



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