Turkey says it will send troops to Syria regardless of US conditions

Bolton left Ankara without meeting with Erdogan.
Tuesday 08/01/2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, January 8, 2019. (AP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, January 8, 2019. (AP)

ISTANBUL - In a major pushback against US plans for Syria, Turkey said it was determined to send troops into the neighbouring country to push Kurdish fighters allied with Washington back from the border region.

“Preparations are almost complete,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said January 8 in a televised speech in front of members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) shortly after a meeting between Erdogan’s top foreign policy adviser and US national security adviser John Bolton failed to produce results. “We cannot make any concessions,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan said Turkey would act against the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), seen as a terrorist group and a threat to Turkey’s national security by Ankara, as well as the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. Washington says Turkey should not attack the YPG, the United States’ most important ally in the fight against ISIS but Erdogan’s speech made clear that Ankara has rejected the request.

Shahoz Hasan, co-chairman of the largest Kurdish group in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), told the Associated Press that Ankara’s latest statements indicated that Turkey plans to go ahead with the offensive in Syria but added that “we will be ready.” The YPG is the PYD’s militia.

Bolton was joined by the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff US Marine Corps General Gen Joseph Dunford and the administration’s Syria envoy, James Jeffrey, for the talks in the Turkish capital. The US delegation met with Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s top adviser and spokesman, deputy leaders of Turkey’s Defence Ministry and intelligence service and other officials.

In a sign of new tensions between NATO allies the United States and Turkey, Kalin said Turkey would not seek US permission for a military operation in Syria. He said Bolton had asked for a meeting with Erdogan but “we did not confirm it.” Bolton left Ankara without meeting the Turkish leader.

US President Donald Trump made the decision to withdraw the 2,000 US troops from Syria during a phone call with Erdogan in December. The US president quickly came under fire both at home and abroad for the abrupt move that appeared to leave the YPG open to attack by Turkey.

Trump and senior administration officials, such as Bolton and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have walked back the announcement of an immediate withdrawal, with Trump now speaking of a “prudent” process. Before his visit to Turkey, Bolton added a new condition to the withdrawal, saying Turkey must agree to protect the United States’ Kurdish allies.

In another development that could fan Turkey’s ire, Pompeo did not rule out the deployment of military forces from Arab countries into northern Syria once the US troops leave.

“We’re going to talk a lot about how to make sure we’re doing everything we can -- we the broader we, the collective we, not just the United States,” Pompeo said before embarking on his own tour of Middle East countries, a transcript by the US State Department said.

That is not what the Turkish government wanted to hear. Erdogan said Bolton made a “serious mistake” with his remarks about the YPG. He said Trump’s announcement to pull out US troops remained the “reference point” for him despite the statements by other US officials that appeared to redefine what the US president had said.

Kalin made it clear before his meeting with Bolton that Ankara was determined to play a crucial role in northern Syria as the fighting in the war-torn country seemingly comes to an end after almost eight years. Kalin recalled that Erdogan’s saying “we will be both on the ground and at the table” in Syria meant that both military and diplomatic means were options for Turkey, the Hurriyet Daily News reported.

Contradicting US officials, Kalin said Erdogan had not promised Trump to protect the YPG. The Erdogan aide also said Turkey wanted the United States to collect weapons that Washington had given to the YPG and expected US bases in Syria to be emptied and handed to local forces to prevent the installations from falling to the YPG.

In an opinion article in the New York Times, Erdogan stressed that Turkey had “no argument with the Syrian Kurds” but was fighting what his country regards as terrorist groups. He said the US withdrawal from Syria must be planned carefully and with the right partners.

“President Trump made the right call to withdraw from Syria. The United States’ withdrawal, however, must be planned carefully and performed in cooperation with the right partners to protect the interests of the United States, the international community and the Syrian people,” Erdogan wrote. “Turkey, which has NATO’s second largest standing army, is the only country with the power and commitment to perform that task.”

Erdogan proposed the creation of a “stabilisation force” in Syria, with fighters from all parts of Syrian society but without the YPG. “Only a diverse body can serve all Syrian citizens and bring law and order to various parts of the country,” he said.