Turkey ‘moving out of Nato orbit’, says US defence chief

Mark Esper said Nato allies must work out how to bring Turkey back into fold

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper testifies before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on "U.S. Policy in Syria and the Broader Region," at the Rayburn House office building in Washington, U.S., December 11, 2019.      REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert
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Turkey is inching away from Nato’s orbit with its incursion into Syria, US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said on Wednesday, after a US Senate committee voted for sanctions on Ankara.

In testimony to the House armed services committee, Mr Esper repeated US concerns about the Turkish incursion into northern Syria, but said the situation had settled down for now.

“My current assessment is that the situation up there has generally stabilised,” he said. “No ceasefire is perfect. The wild card is always these Turkish surrogate forces that are out there.”

Mr Esper would not comment on accusations that Turkey and its surrogates had committed war crimes since the incursion began in October, but said any claims "should be investigated".

The US is concerned about what happens when Turkey moves in the refugees it intends to settle in the Syrian territory. Mr Esper told the committee to “expect turmoil".

On Monday, Turkey’s President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan told state broadcaster TRT he was aiming to settle one million Syrian war refugees in the area.

Ankara would finance the resettlement on its own if allies did not provide support, Mr Erdogan said.

Mr Esper also expressed concern at the growing distance between Turkey and its Nato allies, particularly after it bought a Russian S-400 missile system, despite US warnings.

“My biggest concern with Syria and Turkey is actually Turkey-Russia, the concern is Turkey is moving out of the Nato orbit,” he said.

“Our challenge is to figure out how we can get them back closer to the Nato alliance.”

Mr Esper said the US position remained unchanged in Syria, and there were no plans to withdraw the troops left there.

"Today, US forces remain postured in Syria, operating in close co-ordination with the Syrian Democratic Forces,” he told the committee.

“Although the recent Turkish incursion has complicated this battle space, the Department of Defence remains confident that we can continue the mission the president has given us in Syria, which is to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

Mr Esper outlined future objectives for the US in the Middle East, including a “dynamic” military presence in the region to respond to aggression.

He said it would assist regional partners in strengthening their defences and deny safe haven to terrorists who posed a threat to the US.

At the same hearing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, defended the US presence in Syria.

"ISIS still exists," Mr Milley said. "The physical entity, the proto-state called the caliphate, that was destroyed, defeated, but the organisation still exists. There are still members."

As the hearing took place, the Senate foreign relations committee voted in favour of advancing a bill that would sanction Turkey for its military incursion.

Eighteen senators voted in favour and four opposed, including Republicans Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.

The next step is a full Senate vote on the bill. If enacted, it would block arms sales to Turkey and sanction high-level officials behind the operation in Syria.