Turkish defence minister vows operation against Syrian Kurds
ANKARA - Turkey's defence minister on Friday pledged to wage a campaign against a US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia, sharpening focus on a potential conflict the United States has sought to prevent.
The comments from Hulusi Akar, on an unannounced visit to inspect troops stationed near the Syrian border directly opposite territory held by the US-backed Kurdish YPG, appeared to be aimed at both Washington and its Kurdish allies.
Turkey and the United States, although NATO allies, are deeply divided over the implementation of President Donald Trump's plan to bring home about 2,000 troops stationed in Syria. The plan hinges on Turkish cooperation to secure a swathe of northeast Syria as the United States departs.
While the pull-out has been clouded by mixed messages from both Trump and his administration, on Friday the US-led coalition against Islamic State (ISIS) began the process of withdrawing, a spokesman said.
Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, this week tried to make the case for guarantees that Turkey would not harm the YPG after the withdrawal. That earned a stiff rebuke from President Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organisation and sees Washington's support for it against ISIS as a betrayal.
"When the time and place comes the terrorists here will be buried in the ditches they have dug, as was done in previous operations," Akar said in a speech to military personnel at a brigade command centre in the province of Sanliurfa, referring to two other cross-border campaigns that Turkey has carried out in Syria.
Bolton said on Friday that talks between the US and Turkish militaries on the Kurds and Syria will continue next week, in the hopes of producing results both countries accept.
Bolton, in a radio interview, said he, Trump, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo understood Turkey had committed "not to harm the Kurds who had fought with us against ISIS."
Bolton had suggested on Tuesday that protecting Washington's Kurdish allies would be a pre-condition of the US withdrawal troops from Syria, which prompted Erdogan to call his comments "a serious mistake."
"What we're still pursuing in these military-to-military conversations are assurances and protocols and procedures so that everybody feels comfortable with how this is going to happen. And we're hoping those discussions, which will continue next week, will produce results that are acceptable on both sides," he said in an interview with Hugh Hewitt, according to a transcript.
The US-led coalition said the US began the process of withdrawing from Syria on Friday, making good on Trump's announcement that he had decided to remove 2,000 troops. Trump's decision stunned allies that have joined Washington in the battle against ISIS.
The US decision has injected new uncertainties into the eight-year long Syrian war and a flurry of contacts over how a resulting security vacuum will be filled across a swathe of northern and eastern Syria where the US forces are stationed. Turkey aims to pursue its campaign against the YPG while Russia and the Iran-backed Syrian government sees the chance to recover a huge chunk of territory.
Kurds and Assad regime
Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey's largely Kurdish southeast. The Kurdish groups that control a vast swathe of northern Syria have now turned to Moscow and Damascus in the hope of striking a political deal that will stave off Turkey and shield their autonomy in the north.
Ankara has repeatedly expressed frustration over a deal with the United States for the withdrawal of the YPG from the city of Manbij, just west of the Euphrates river.
"Before us we have Manbij on one side and the east of the Euphrates on the other," Akar said in his speech on Friday, underscoring the scale of a potential operation. "Important preparations and planning have been made in connection with this. Our preparations are continuing intensively."
Turkey's planned military operation against Kurdish forces does not depend on an American withdrawal from the region, Ankara said on Thursday.
Russia said on Friday it was important for Syrian Kurds and the Syrian government to start talking to each other in light of the US plans to withdraw its forces.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters that territory previously controlled by the United States should be transferred to the Syrian government.
"In this regard, establishing dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus takes on particular significance. After all, the Kurds are an integral part of Syrian society," said Zakharova.
She told the same briefing that Moscow had the impression that the United States wanted to stay in Syria despite Trump's unexpected announcement.
Zakharova also said Russia remained committed to an agreement it had struck with Turkey to stabilise a de-escalation zone in Syria's Idlib province, but said Moscow was worried by an increase in the number of ceasefire violations there.