France denies troop moves in Syria, as Turkey lashes out
By ANGELA CHARLTON and SUZAN FRASER
Mar. 30, 2018
PARIS (AP) — France denied claims of a military buildup against Turkish forces in Syria, scrambling Friday to calm tensions with NATO ally Turkey that threaten to further aggravate the Syria war.
French President Emmanuel Macron raised Turkey's ire by meeting in Paris with Syrian rebels, including Kurdish fighters that Turkey considers terrorists. Worsening matters, Macron offered to mediate between them.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan angrily refused, accusing Macron on Friday of overstepping "his limits" and going "over his head."
A French presidential official said the Turkish response was no surprise given the "sensitivities" around Kurdish separatist violence in Turkey.
Still, the official insisted that the Turkish offensive against opposition forces in northwest Syria "must stop." The official argued that the operation is jeopardizing the broader U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State group.
After Macron's meeting Thursday with members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Kurdish figures claimed that the French leader had promised to send troops to Manbij near Syria's border with Turkey.
The Kurdish-Arab town is under threat of a Turkish military operation that has already squeezed the rebels out of nearby towns. Turkey's military argues Manbij is controlled by Syrian Kurdish militiamen it views as an extension of Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey.
The Kurdish claim raised fears that France was ready for a military conflict with Turkey, a fellow NATO member.
The French presidential official denied any plans to send ground troops — or launch any operation outside the coalition's efforts against IS. He said Macron only offered renewed political support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, promising to "continue this fight together."
The official said France is re-evaluating needs in the fight against IS but hasn't received any requests so far from the U.S.-led coalition for reinforcements in the area.
France has led airstrikes on Syria as part of the anti-IS coalition and is believed to have special forces in Syria, but has not sent ground troops.
Macron's office wouldn't comment on the different interpretations of what happened at his meeting with the Syrian Democratic Forces.
In Turkey, Erdogan didn't directly address the threat of French military action but insisted that "we don't need a mediator" and warned Macron "don't get into things that are out of your depth."
"Those who go to bed with terrorists, or even host them in their palaces, will sooner or later understand the mistake they're making," Erdogan said in Ankara.
The Turkish leader said Macron made "bizarre" comments during a phone conversation last week that forced Erdogan to raise his voice and respond with a "high frequency."
Macron's office insisted it wants to maintain dialogue with Turkey.
Macron also pledged French support in maintaining security in Turkey, and reiterated France's opposition to the Kurdish rebel group, PKK.
While U.S. President Donald Trump said Thursday the U.S. would be pulling out of Syria "very soon," France insists that Islamic State extremists remain a threat to international security and wants the U.S. to stay until they are vanquished.
Fraser reported from Ankara. Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed.