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Kurds East of Euphrates Now, Top US General Says


FILE - Turkish soldiers sit on a tank driving to Syria from the Turkish Syrian border city of Karkamis in the southern region of Gaziantep, Aug. 27, 2016.

FILE - Turkish soldiers sit on a tank driving to Syria from the Turkish Syrian border city of Karkamis in the southern region of Gaziantep, Aug. 27, 2016.

U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds have crossed back over to the eastern side of the Euphrates River, a top U.S. general said Tuesday, in a move the U.S. hopes will end recent skirmishes between the Kurds and the Turks as they both battle Islamic State militants.

“The portion of the Kurds that are part of the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] are on the east side of the Euphrates River at this time. They have lived up to their commitment to us,” Army General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, told reporters at the Pentagon.

The SDF is primarily made up of Kurdish fighters, but Syrian Arabs, Turkmen and others also are part of the group.

Votel said members of the SDF who have stayed west of the Euphrates to hold ground gained from IS in and around Manbij are not Kurds and are “principally made up of forces that come from that particular area.”

Kurdish forces recently helped push IS militants out of Manbij, about 40 kilometers south of Jarablus and about 30 kilometers west of the Euphrates River.

Votel said both Turkey and U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in Syria were "critical" to the fight against IS in the region.

He added that the U.S. relies on both parties to help counter the "principal threat" of IS. "Our support for all parties is contingent upon the focus upon ISIL," he said, using another acronym for the terror group.

FILE - Turkish troops return from the Syrian border, in Karkamis, Turkey, Aug. 27, 2016. Turkey on Wednesday sent tanks across the border to help Syrian rebels retake the key Islamic State-held town of Jarablus.

FILE - Turkish troops return from the Syrian border, in Karkamis, Turkey, Aug. 27, 2016. Turkey on Wednesday sent tanks across the border to help Syrian rebels retake the key Islamic State-held town of Jarablus.

The general said that while he has not received any verbal assurances from Turkey that it will remain in Syria to fight the terror group, he has seen actions from Turkey that are “extraordinarily positive,” from moving west along the border of Jarablus to pursue IS to continuing other partnering efforts against IS along the Mara Line, in Syria’s northwest.

“Deeds matter, and what I’m seeing on the ground is that they remain very committed to the ISIL fight,” Votel said.

His comments came a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter called on Turkey to "stay focused" on the fight against Islamic State and not engage with U.S.-allied Kurdish forces also battling the terror group in Syria.

Using the U.S.’s own words, Turkey said Tuesday that U.S. criticism of the aims of its offensive in northern Syria was “unacceptable.'' The Turkish Foreign Ministry said it summoned the U.S. ambassador over the matter.

Syrian rebels supported by Turkey have taken control of at least four villages and one town from Kurdish-led forces in the area.

Turkey's military foray into Syria is a dramatic escalation of Ankara's involvement in the Syrian civil war.

The clashes support Western concerns that Turkey's military incursion into Syria is intended, in part, to target U.S.-supported Kurdish forces known as the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or the YPG militia. The United States has described the YPG as one of its most effective allies in the fight against Islamic State, while Turkey is demanding a YPG retreat from all border territory seized from IS jihadists.

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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