By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) – Turkey warned France on Thursday that it needed to choose who it wanted as an ally to fight Islamic State in Syria, and urged it to do what is necessary to ensure Kurdish militias leave the northern Manbij region.
Relations between Ankara and Paris have been tense in recent weeks, with France increasingly criticising the two-month-old Turkish military operation against the Kurdish YPG in northern Syria, which Turkey considers a terrorist organisation
That came to a head on March 30 after President Emmanuel Macron met a Syrian delegation including the YPG and its political arm, the PYD, and gave assurances of French support to help them stabilise northern Syria against Islamic State.
“Our allies will need to make a choice in favour of Turkey in the fight against Islamic State and not the PYD/YPG,” Turkish European Affairs Minister, Omer Celik, told Reuters in an interview after meeting French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
“I wanted to underline that we are expecting that France does nothing to encourage or support the YPG/PYD.”
He dismissed any suggestion of France playing a mediating role between the two sides, saying that Paris needed to understand that the Kurdish Syrian groups were no different to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the state within Turkey.
“I said that any help offered to the PYD/YPG would be deemed help for terrorism,” Celik said.
France, like the United States, has already extended arms and training to the YPG-led militia in the fight against Islamic State, and has dozens of special forces members based in the region, which has infuriated Turkey.
A PYD member in Paris said last week that Macron had promised to send more troops to northern Syria, provide humanitarian assistance and push for a diplomatic solution.
The French presidency did not confirm that Macron had pledged more troops, but a presidential source said France could bolster its military intervention in Syria “within the existing framework” of the U.S.-led coalition.
A French official said on Thursday that Paris considered the YPG vital in defeating Islamic State and that France was concerned of a revival by the hardline group following Turkey’s operation.
Turkey, which stormed the northern Syrian town of Afrin last month, has repeatedly threatened to push its operations further east to Manbij, where U.S. troops are stationed.
Expanding Turkey’s military campaign into the much larger Kurdish-held territory further east, which President Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to do, would risk confrontation between NATO allies, who have been at loggerheads over the U.S. policy in Syria and other issues.
Celik said he had told Le Drian that trying to put the YPG/PYD under a new banner or uniforms would not change the problem and that Turkey wanted the groups cleared from Manbij.
“We want these terrorist organisations removed from proximity to our borders. That is our priority and if their presence continues then we will intervene,” he said. “Our allies who tell us not to intervene in Manbij must do what is necessary so that these terrorist organisations leave,” he said.
Celik also said he had asked France and the European Union to help build homes in areas taken by Turkish troops to allow some refugees to return from Turkey.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Andrew Bolton)