Turkey agrees to join US in liberation of ISIS--held Raqa
ISTANBUL (Turkey) - Washington and Ankara are ready to work together to push Islamic State jihadists out of their de facto capital of Raqa in northern Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in comments published Wednesday.
Erdogan said he had agreed with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in China to do "what is necessary" to drive ISIS out of Raqa.
"Raqa is the most important centre of Daesh," Erdogan told Turkish journalists onboard his plane as he returned from China, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
"Obama wants to do something together especially on the issue of Raqa," he said. "I said there would be no problem from our perspective."
"I said 'our soldiers should come together and discuss, then what is necessary will be done'," Erdogan was quoted as saying by the Hurriyet daily.
Without giving further details, he said: "What can be done will become clear after the discussions."
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad's regime were pushed out of Raqa, which lies on the Euphrates River, in 2013, making it the first provincial capital in Syria to fall out of government control.
ISIS rapidly infiltrated the city, which is strategically located near the Turkish border, and declared a caliphate in 2014.
Ousting ISIS from the city would be a turning point in the conflict and mark a huge blow to the jihadists.
Erdogan's comments came two weeks after Turkey launched an ambitious operation inside Syria, sending tanks and special forces to back up Syrian opposition fighters and remove ISIS jihadists and Kurdish militia from its frontier.
Ankara-backed rebels seized the town of Jarabulus from ISIS militants within hours on the first day of the operation and Turkey says jihadists have now been removed from the entire border area.
Loaded with luggage and possessions, hundreds of civilians began returning to Jarabulus on Wednesday, forming long queues at the border gate outside the Turkish town of Karkamis, an photographer said.
But Turkey on Tuesday sustained its biggest loss of life in the operation to date, with three soldiers killed in an ISIS rocket attack on their tanks.
With the offensive still pressing on, the Turkish army said six more villages south of the town of Al-Rai had been retaken from ISIS jihadists on Tuesday, in a statement carried by state-run news agency Anadolu.
Yet it remains unclear if the Syrian rebels backed by Turkey will proceed further south to take Al-Bab from ISIS jihadists and then Raqa itself, or to what extent the operation has US support.
Long criticised for failure to stem the flow of foreign fighters joining ranks with ISIS, Turkey hopes the ouster of the jihadists from its frontier will drastically improve security.
"Obviously, with ISIS removed from the border, we expect this development to have a positive impact on foreign fighters," a senior Turkish official said, on condition of anonymity.
Since 2015, a total of 1,223 foreign nationals were detained by Turkish authorities over suspected links to ISIS, 434 of whom were placed under arrest by the courts, said the official.
Turkey has been alarmed by US support for the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People's Protection Units (YPG) militia which Ankara sees as a "terrorist" group linked to its own Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which has been waging a bloody campaign against the Turkish state.
"We need to show we are present in the region," said Erdogan.
"If we take a step back, terror groups like Daesh, PKK, PYD or YPG will settle there."
Asked if there was any change in US approach on the issue of PYD, Erdogan said: "At least, there's been no interference into Turkey."
Erdogan said that after the G20 he was optimistic of the chances of a ceasefire between opposition forces and Assad's regime, in time for the Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday, which gets under way next week.
"God willing, we are hoping for a cease fire in (region of) Aleppo before the Eid," said Erdogan, adding that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has promised him this would happen in days.