Turkey rejects US plan to leave Syrian safe zone to Western powers
ISTANBUL - As Turkey prepared for a summit on Syria with Russia and Iran, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country wanted sole control over a proposed buffer zone in northern Syria, rejecting a plan by the United States for a multinational force to police the area.
Speaking at a meeting of lawmakers of his ruling Justice and Development Party February 5 in Ankara, Erdogan lashed out at what he viewed as foot-dragging by the United States.
He said Turkey would send its soldiers to occupy the Syrian city of Manbij if the United States would not ensure that the Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units (YPG) withdrew from the area quickly. Ankara regards the YPG, a crucial ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State, as a terrorist organisation.
“If terrorists are not withdrawn from Manbij in a couple of weeks, our patience will run out,” Erdogan said in the televised speech. He repeated a warning of a wider Turkish military intervention in north-eastern Syria once the US troops leave the country.
“If a system of self-rule for the people of the region cannot be established within a few months with Turkish support, again, our patience will run out,” Erdogan said. “In other words, in that case we will have the right to implement our own plans.”
Erdogan has been warning of a new Turkish intervention into Syria since late last year but has not given the goahead to troops massed on the border. Some observers say the Turkish president is using the issue to win over voters ahead of the March 31 local elections.
Turkey says the area of Kurdish autonomy in north-eastern Syria violates the rights of other groups in the area. Ankara wants to create a 30km-deep “safe zone” along its southern border to push back the YPG.
The United States supports the idea of a buffer zone in principle but does not want Turkey to be in full control.
The Wall Street Journal reported in January that Washington was trying to get Western partners, such as Australia, France and the United Kingdom, to patrol the stretch of Syrian territory along the Turkish border after US troops leave the area. Washington is concerned that Turkey will attack the YPG once US soldiers are withdrawn.
In his speech, Erdogan said the US plan was not an option. “I repeat: Any proposal except a model for a safe zone under Turkish control, with other countries just providing logistical help, is unacceptable.”
He said there was no example for a safe zone successfully administered by “international powers.” The Turkish president said Turkish troops would be welcomed by locals in Syria: “They trust us.”
Erdogan’s latest statement on Turkey’s claim to the possible buffer zone came as he prepared for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani February 14 in Sochi, Russia.
Erdogan, one of the most outspoken foes of Syrian President Bashar Assad on the international stage, confirmed that Turkey had “low-level” contacts with the Syrian government.
“Even if it’s your enemy, you will not entirely break ties in case you might need them,” Erdogan told state broadcaster TRT. His spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, insisted that the contacts, mainly between intelligence services of the two countries, did not amount to a formal recognition of the regime in Damascus.
During a meeting with Erdogan in January in Moscow, Putin urged Turkey to step up cooperation with the Assad government to stabilise north-eastern Syria with the help of a 1998 agreement calling for a joint fight against the separatist Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). The target of Turkey’s planned intervention in Syria, the YPG, is the PKK’s Syrian affiliate.