BRUSSELS—Western diplomats hope to use a high-level gathering of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization this week to keep members U.S. and Turkey from going to battle against each other in Syria.
They have already come close to direct conflict. Turkey, angered by U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish militants whom Ankara considers terrorists, has been fighting Kurds in one Syrian town and threatened to go after them in another—where several hundred U.S. Special Forces are deployed.
Stoking tensions, Turkish media reports citing unnamed officials have accused the U.S. of giving its Kurdish allies a rocket that killed five soldiers on Feb. 3. Turkey hasn’t said where it determined the rocket came from.
Raising the stakes for NATO, Turkey has stepped up its military coordination with Russia, the alliance’s chief rival. The dispute could push Ankara closer to Moscow’s orbit and further fray ties between Turkey and its traditional Western allies.
“The less our allies cooperate with us, the more we have to work with other regional players,” said Turkey’s ambassador to the European Union, Faruk Kaymakci. “This forced us to get closer with Russia and with Iran.”
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief adviser and spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, met White House National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster in Istanbul during the U.S. national security adviser’s visit over the weekend. The two sides reiterated their long-term strategic partnership, exchanging views about regional developments. Messrs. Kalin and McMaster had detailed discussions about issues negatively impact allied relations, and sought ways to “jointly fight all forms of terrorism,” the Turkish president’s office said, without providing additional details.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will meet his Turkish counterpart at a NATO meeting that begins on Wednesday in Brussels, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to visit Turkey at the end of the week.
NATO is no stranger to internal disputes and can be a forum for resolving them. “This is the kitchen table around which you can discuss things and keep the family together,” an alliance official said.
Some participants described a frosty session at NATO’s Brussels headquarters on Feb. 7.
Alliance members had convened at the request of Turkey, whose representatives explained the threat they saw from Kurds in Syria and avoided mention of whether U.S. weapons were being used against Turkish forces.
U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison started with sympathetic comments about Turkey’s fight against terrorism, but ended with a gentle warning against expanding operations. An escalation would be terrible and it would be “unthinkable to have a conflict” between Turkey and the U.S., she said.
Allies also warned Turkey of possible humanitarian consequences and asked for a pledge that the operation wouldn’t adversely affect the coalition campaign against Islamic State.
President Erdogan has vowed to go beyond the offensive in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin and march on Manbij, a predominantly Arab town now held by Syrian Kurdish forces and host to U.S. special-operations forces.
The U.S. said its troops would stand their ground against a Turkish offensive and wouldn’t make Kurdish forces evacuate the region on the west bank of the Euphrates River.
Some allied diplomats said the problem should be solvable because Turkey and the U.S. share a similar long-term vision for Syria and the region: keeping the country intact and deposing President Bashar al-Assad.
But the two hold different tactical priorities. Ankara says it is targeting the YPG, Syrian Kurdish militants it accuses of attacks in Turkey. The YPG is the U.S.-led coalition’s most important partner on the ground in Syria.
The YPG are a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a separatist group blamed for thousands of deaths in Turkey since 1984 and designated as terrorists by both Turkey and the U.S.
Turkey sees the two groups as one; the U.S. treats them as separate, despite acknowledging links.
Turkey accuses the U.S. of continuing to provide heavy weapons to the YPG, which Trump administration officials deny. The U.S. says it is only providing small arms to help its partners hold Syrian territory claimed from Islamic State.
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- U.S. Border Plan in Syria Fuels Tensions With Turkey (Jan. 17, 2018)
- U.S. Is Caught Between Ally Turkey and Kurdish Partner in Syria (May 4, 2017)
“They’ve told us many things, but they haven’t spoken the truth,” Mr. Erdogan said Tuesday in parliament. “We have told America this: ‘Don’t cooperate with terrorist organizations, don’t move jointly with terrorist organizations. If there is something to be done in this region, come and do it together with Turkey, your NATO partner.’ ”
Mr. Erdogan confronted President Donald Trump last month about U.S. arms supplies to Kurdish militants in a lengthy and contentious conversation, according to people briefed on the discussion.
“Erdogan brought it up again and said, ‘You guys are still doing this,’ and the president said, ‘No, we’re not. We stopped it months ago,’ ” a Trump administration official said.
A meeting between Mr. Mattis and his Turkish counterpart next week would be a chance to defuse tensions.
“We do not want to have any confrontation with U.S. forces in Syria,” said Mr. Kalin. “We have made it clear to our American colleagues.”
—Peter Nicholas in Washington contributed to this article.