KOBANI, SYRIA - As tensions between Turkey and Syrian Kurds increase, the United States seeks to play a mediating role in order to keep the focus on combating the remnants of the Islamic State (IS) terror group, a senior Syrian-Kurdish official said.
In an interview with VOA at his base in northern Syria, Mazloum Abdi, the general commander of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said his group hopes that the U.S. will play a major role in calming the current escalation in northern Syria.
"We believe that the U.S. is the main power that is capable of influencing Turkey's position and stop its threats against us," he said.
"The U.S. is the leader of the NATO alliance, and so it has leverage over Turkey within the NATO framework," Abdi told VOA. "At the same time, it has strong ties with the SDF through the anti-IS alliance. So the U.S. knows both sides very well and it is the only power that can prevent war and bring all sides together."
The SDF is a Kurdish-led military alliance that has been a major partner to Washington in the fight against IS.
For weeks, Turkey has been massing its troops near its border with Syria for what appears to be an imminent attack against U.S.-backed SDF that Ankara calls terrorists.
Turkey views the SDF and its main force, the YPG, as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish military for three decades.
The PKK has been designated a terror group by the U.S. and the European Union.
But the U.S. makes a distinction between the PKK and YPG, providing military support to the latter in its fight against IS militants in Syria.
The U.S. also maintains a military presence in areas under the control of Kurdish forces in Syria, which has been instrumental in the fight against IS militants.
There are about 2,000 U.S. troops on the ground, U.S. defense officials say. However, U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to decrease that number to 400 troops.
The partnership between the U.S. and local Kurdish forces has been successful in pushing IS militants from nearly all territory they once held since 2014, including their de facto capital, Raqqa.
In March this year, IS was declared defeated after it was pushed out of its last stronghold in eastern Syria.
IS benefiting from tensions
Kurdish leader Abdi says that because of the ongoing tensions between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish groups, IS militants have been able to regroup and wage major attacks against SDF fighters in eastern Syria.
"Daesh will take advantage of this [Turkish] intervention," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS. "In fact, Daesh is benefiting now from these continued Turkish threats by increasing its attacks on areas we have liberated recently."
He added, "If war erupts with Turkey, our forces will have no choice but to withdraw from those areas to focus on the defense lines along the border [with Turkey]."
"Our priority will be protecting ourselves from Turkey. This, of course, will create a military and security vacuum in areas liberated from Daesh terrorists. It would offer an opening to Daesh to reemerge in certain areas and announce its caliphate once again," Abdi told VOA.
On Sunday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed his threats to carry out an operation east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria, in an area controlled by the SDF.
"We entered Afrin, Jarablus, al-Bab. Now we will enter the east of the Euphrates. We shared this with Russia and the U.S. As long as harassment fire continues, we cannot remain silent," Erdogan said during a ceremony.
Since 2016, Turkey has taken control of several border towns in Syria, including Afrin, Jarablus and al-Bab.
Abdi, however, said that the SDF would not allow a full-fledged Turkish military presence in northern Syria.
"We could only accept a Turkish presence in our area in the framework of an international force, in a way that won't be a threat to the Kurdish people," he said.
Following Trump's announcement last year of a planned and coordinated U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria, Washington and Ankara agreed to establish a safe zone on the Syrian side of the border.
But talks have been stalled, with Turkey demanding to clear the planned safe zone of Kurdish fighters.
In a bid to avoid a confrontation between Turkey and the SDF, U.S. envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, has had several meetings with Turkish officials in recent days.
"The U.S. has so far been successful in preventing war. We view this positively but there is no final agreement yet. Meetings and discussions continue and we are part of them," Kurdish commander Abdi said.
"We will support all efforts made by Mr. Jeffrey and we have shown a lot of flexibility to support such efforts," he concluded.