Turkey holding out for 20-mile Syrian safe zone, will not hesitate to launch operation – defence minister
Turkey is holding out for a northern Syrian safe zone of between 30 and 40 km in depth and will not hesitate to take unilateral action if the United States fails to meet its demand, Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency quoted Defence Minister Hulusi Akar saying on Monday.
Turkish and U.S. officials agreed on preliminary plans for the safe zone last week, after months of simmering tensions on Turkey’s border with Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly threatened to launch an invasion of the Kurdish-controlled territories east of the River Euphrates, which are dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and affiliated groups. Ankara considers these to be terrorist groups due to their links to insurgents fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey for decades.
But Washington has been at pains to prevent an operation against the YPG, which has played a crucial role in the U.S.-backed international coalition against Islamic State.
A 90-person U.S. military delegation arrived in Turkey’s southeastern of Şanlıurfa province on Monday to set up a joint operations centre with Turkish counterparts, local press reported.
The creation of the centre was announced as part of last Wednesday’s agreement, and aims to further discussions on how the safe zone will take shape.
The agreement was a good start, Akar said, adding that the joint operations centre would be established within days, and would also work on detailed plans on areas to return some of Turkey’s large population of Syrian refugees.
Washington has resisted Turkey’s demands for a 20-mile deep safe zone, which commentators say would be unacceptable for the Kurdish side.
However, Turkey was holding firm on a 30 to 40-km depth that was promised by U.S. President Donald Trump during a phone conversation with Erdoğan, Akar said.
“We calculate that a series of new steps will be taken on this in the coming days. In this, control and coordination in air space is very important. There has been a great deal of progress on this, too,” Akar said.
He said this depth was necessary to allay Turkish fears of attacks being able to reach its territory. Akar said that Turkey wished to advance in cooperation with the United States, but would take action on its own if no progress was made.
“We have set concrete targets (on the creation of the safe zone) that I can’t share with you now, together with deadlines … If these are not met, we have told them (U.S. officials) repeatedly that our patience has worn thin,” Akar said.
If the deadlines are not met, the minister said, “then that will give us the right to use our initiative in a unilateral move, and we have said that we will have absolutely no hesitation to do so”.
Despite the agreement announced by both sides last Wednesday, both Erdoğan and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu have kept the prospect of a military operation on the agenda.
On Saturday, in a filmed message to Turks marking the Eid al-Adha religious festival, Erdoğan promised Turks a military victory to add to its list of historic victories in the month of August.
The next day, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey would clear the area east of the Euphrates regardless of the outcome of talks with the United States.
Tens of thousands of Turkish troops are now poised on the southern border.
A new operation will be Turkey’s third incursion into Syria since 2016, when the Turkish military launched Operation Euphrates Shield, targeting YPG militants as well as Islamic State.
Another operation, Olive Branch, was launched in January 2018, capturing the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin by March that year.
An operation east of the River Euphrates is a far riskier prospect. The YPG and its allies have an estimated 100,000 troops and heavy fortifications in an area that stretches around 600 km along Turkey’s southern border.