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US top general talks Syria, NATO with new Turkey counterpart

Gen. Mark Milley's first announced call with newly appointed Turkish armed forces chief Metin Gurak follows reports that the United States is exploring alternate routes for Ukraine's grain exports.
ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA - MAY 25: Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon May 25, 2023 in Arlington, Virginia. Milley and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin briefed members of the press following an online session of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Washington’s outgoing top general, Mark Milley, spoke by phone Wednesday with his counterpart in Turkey, Metin Gurak, in their first announced contact since Gurak was appointed defense chief earlier this month.

According to a Pentagon readout of the call, the two discussed “several items of mutual strategic interest, including NATO, Syria and the security environment in eastern Europe.”

A Turkish readout simply said the pair “exchanged views on current developments.”

Why it matters: Washington has been seeking opportunities to improve ties with its NATO ally after relations frayed due to Ankara’s outreach to Russia, acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system and US military support for Kurdish-led factions fighting the Islamic State in Syria along Turkey’s southeastern border.

Milley’s call with Gurak came a day after the Pentagon sought to downplay an ongoing escalation by Turkey-backed factions attempting to seize Kurdish-held areas in Syria near the long-disputed city of Manbij.

Pentagon officials offered muted reactions this week over the dangers of further escalation in Syria as the US-backed Kurdish-led forces face down a tribal uprising in eastern Deir ez-Zor province amid local grievances over neglected services and what some see as heavy-handed counterterrorism operations.

The situation remains ripe for exploitation by other parties to the conflict including Turkey, which joined Russia and Iran for the first time last year in calling for the roughly 900 US troops in Syria to withdraw.

Officials in the government of recently reelected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have voiced support for those among the Arab tribes who have come out in opposition to the authority of the Kurdish-led force, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization.

“From the very beginning, we have been expressing how wrong it is to support another terrorist organization, PKK/YPG, under the pretext of fighting against the Islamic State. What is unfolding is clear proof of how right we are,” a senior Turkish Defense Ministry official told journalists in Ankara on Thursday.

Privately, American military officials express frustration with Turkey’s renewed attempts to undermine the US mission in Syria, but the Defense Department is taking a back seat in support of the Biden administration’s diplomatic approach.

American officials led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Syria Ethan Goldrich and the commander of coalition forces fighting IS in Syria and Iraq, US Army Maj. Gen. Joel Vowell, met with tribal leaders and commanders of the Kurdish-led forces in Deir ez-Zor last weekend in an effort to smooth things over.

Know more: The US Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier arrived in Istanbul earlier this month after members of its strike group conducted a nearly monthlong exercise with Turkish forces in the latest sign of allied support.

But the Pentagon has no plans to dispatch warships into the Black Sea, officials said in July. The US Navy has not had a presence in the strategic waterway since Turkey invoked the 1936 Montreaux Convention to bar foreign navies from entering following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

Russia has repeatedly bombed Ukrainian grain infrastructure since withdrawing from a Turkey-negotiated deal in July that allowed Ukraine to export food products via the Black Sea, threatening to undermine the global food market.

US officials have been in talks with Turkish, Ukrainian and eastern European counterparts on developing alternate routes for Ukrainian grain exports in order to bypass Russia’s attempt to disrupt global food prices, the Wall Street Journal first reported.

Any introduction of Western military hardware into the waterway in support of such an effort would likely require coordination with Turkey.

Erdogan met Putin in Sochi earlier this week to discuss Moscow’s reentry into the grain deal. 

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