US official says focus should be on ISIS after Turkish airstrike killed American volunteer

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner speaking to a press conference. File photo

ARA News

Manbij – After a US volunteer in the ranks of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was killed by a Turkish airstrikes west of Manbij, the US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said that all the focus should be on destroying and eliminating ISIS.

“With respect to Manbij – so Daesh [ISIS] is no longer in Manbij. That city has been liberated. So my first reaction is that we want to see the focus maintained on destroying and eliminating and driving out Daesh from where it still continues occupy areas, and those are the missions that we’re supporting actively,” he stated.

“We believe that all military activities in that very congested and complex battle space that is northern Syria need to be very closely coordinated. And that’s to avoid miscalculations; it’s to avoid the risk of hurting innocent civilians who are caught in the middle. It’s also – we don’t want to see any kind of escalation or any tensions between some of these parties that are fighting on the ground,” he said.

Michael Israel from California and Anton Leschek from Bielefeld were killed in a Turkish airstrike on November 24. The two men were foreign volunteers, serving in the Syrian Democratic Forces. “Michael and Anton were martyred on November 24 as a result of Turkish airstrikes on western Manbij,” the SDF said in a statement on Thursday.

Nevertheless, Toner said the US-led coalition continues its contacts with Turkey. “So we’re in contact with Turkey, as we’ve been all along, on the overall situation in northern Syria. And we’re working with them on ways to better coordinate activities on the ground in northern Syria and de-escalate tensions,” he said.

On the US citizen Michael Israel from California that was killed by a Turkish airstrike on 24 November, the US official did not condemn the air strike. “But it’s obviously very difficult to provide much support when someone is killed actively fighting on the ground in Syria,” he stated.

Several volunteers died while fighting Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists in Manbij’s urban warrens. The SDF previously said that “three volunteers from the US and two others from the UK and Slovenia, were martyred alongside their fellow freedom fighters.” Israel’s death makes him the fourth American fatality.

SDF fighters mourned the loss of Israel and Leschek on Friday. “It’s with a heavy heart that I learned today that heval Michael Israel passed away fighting ISIS,” an international volunteer said.

Turkey Concerns over Syrian Kurds

The US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner further said that Turkey has concerns towards Kurdish groups operating in northern Syria.

“Turkey has concerns regarding some of the groups that are operating in northern Syria and the fact that they equate some of these groups – I’m talking about some of the Syrian Kurds – with the PKK. We’ve been very clear where we fall on this delineation,” Toner said.

“We obviously consider the PKK to be a foreign terrorist organization, but we don’t include in that designation those groups that are fighting in northern Syria who are Syrian Kurds who it also is important to note have been very effective against Daesh [ISIS] on the battlefield and who we’ve supported,” he said.

“We understand that as these areas [like Manbij] are liberated there needs to be some governing body or some controlling body in these towns. Manbij is no exception. Our thinking on this or our priority on this is that forces that hold the ground that’s been taken back from ISIS should reflect local populations. And when the – when the situation is stabilized, it’s essential that local population is there to rebuild and resettle and restore local control,” Toner stated.

“That’s always been our operating principle as these areas become liberated, and that’s going to be that going forward. When we talk to the Turkish authorities or Turkish military, and we do frequently, we make all these points. And we’re working through all these with them in what is, as I said, is a very complex battle space with lots of competing interests,” the US official said.

Moreover, the US state department official said they support the SDF allying itself with local forces.

“As they have liberated areas, we’ve seen local forces come in. And that’s – as I said, that’s the ideal, in our view, situation,” he said.

However, the US official did not want to comment on the Islamist orientation of forces backed by Turkey, that have called US special forces “dogs” in September and forced out US soldiers out of the town of al-Rai due to threats by Turkish-backed rebels.

“But I’m not going to comment on the composition of Turkish-supported forces. I’ll just again reiterate what I just said, which is that we believe these cities, as they’re liberated, should be controlled by local forces that reflect the population of the city,” Toner concluded.

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