Turkey is determined to destroy what has been referred to as a “terror corridor” east of the Euphrates river in Syria, regardless of how talks conclude with the United States on a planned safe zone in the country’s north, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday.
Turkey has ramped up its warnings of a possible incursion into northern Syria in recent days, saying it had run “out of patience” with Washington over the safe zone talks and adding that it would launch its operation if an agreement was not reached.
“Those who put their trust in foreign powers in the region will be put under ground,” Erdogan told members of his ruling AK Party. “We will find a lasting solution to terror.”
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar met military officials on Thursday to discuss a possible offensive, which would mark the third Turkish incursion into Syria in as many years.
The latest operation was first signalled by Erdogan late last year but later put on hold.
Following US President Donald Trump’s announcement of a planned US withdrawal from northern Syria, the two NATO allies agreed to create a zone inside Syria and along its northeastern border with Turkey that would be cleared of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The YPG was Washington’s main ally on the ground in Syria during the battle against Islamic State, but Turkey sees it as a terrorist organisation indistinguishable from Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters waging an insurgency inside Turkey.
Ankara says that the US has stalled progress on setting up the safe zone and has demanded that Washington sever its relations with the YPG.
A US delegation led by Syria Special Envoy James Jeffrey presented proposals this week which failed to satisfy Turkish officials, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.
On Thursday, Akar told Turkish military officers that Ankara had set out its view to the US delegation.
“We emphasised to them once again that we have no tolerance for any delays, and that we will use our initiative if necessary,” the Turkish defence ministry quoted Akar as saying.
In Washington, the Pentagon reiterated that coordination and consultation between the US and Turkey was the only way to address security concerns.
“We have made clear that unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as US personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern,” Commander Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
“We would find any such actions unacceptable,” Robertson added.
Earlier on Thursday, Turkish military officials said that Ankara and Washington would continue to discuss the planned safe zone despite rising tensions between the allies.
“We cannot share details as efforts are under way. Our aims are clear.
“The Turkish army is the only force capable of doing this,” the Reuters news agency quoted one of the officials as saying regarding the safe zone.
The official reiterated Turkey’s frustration that an agreement reached a year ago with the US to clear the northern Syrian town of Manbij of YPG fighters had not been implemented.
“Despite all our work, the end-goal of the Manbij roadmap, which is for the area to be cleared of the YPG, for heavy arms to be collected, and a local administration to be formed, has not been reached,” he said.
“There are still around 1,000 terrorists in the region,” the official added, referring to the YPG.
Ties between Ankara and Washington have been strained over a host of issues, but Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems has brought the NATO allies to the brink of one of the biggest ruptures in ties.
The US said it had suspended Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 fighter jet programme over the Russian systems and that it would later remove Ankara completely.
It has also said that Turkey may face possible US sanctions over the deal.
Erdogan said on Friday that Turkey would turn elsewhere for fighter jets if the US will not sell it F-35s, adding that the US decision to cut Ankara from the jet production programme would not deter it from meeting its needs.
Trump has yet to decide on sanctions on Turkey that appear to be required by US law.
Erdogan, speaking publicly about Ankara’s strained ties with Washington for the first time in 11 days, said he hoped US officials would be “reasonable” on the question of sanctions.
Turkey has dismissed the warnings, instead pinning its hopes on sympathetic comments from Trump who has said that Ankara had been treated unfairly.
On Thursday, military officials said that while Russia had offered to provide Turkey with its SU-35 jets if Ankara asked for them, there were no talks to procure alternatives to the F-35s.
Akar, however, echoing Erdogan’s comments, said that Turkey would look elsewhere if it was denied the jets.
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