PHOTO: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (Reuters)
The US has quickly denied a claim by Turkey’s Foreign Minister of a deal over airstrikes against the Islamic State in northern Syria.
Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Monday that the two countries would soon begin “comprehensive” air operations to clear IS fighters from a zone in northern Syria along the Turkish border.
Çavuşoğlu said technical talks between Washington and Ankara were completed on Sunday, with the possibility of Britain, France, and regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan participating in operations.
But hours later, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said there was no agreement as negotiations continued.
The conflicting statements were the latest tension in months of talks between Turkey and the US about a possible “safe zone” in Aleppo Province which would be 98 km (61 miles) long and 40 km (25 miles) deep.
In late July, as it agreed to US use of airbases in southern Turkey, the Turkish Government said plans were imminent for operations to establish the area. However, Washington retreated from any reference to a “safe zone” or “no-fly zone”.
One of the difficulties is in the aims of the operation. Washington wants an exclusive focus on the Islamic State, while Turkey and Syria’s rebels want protection from the airstrikes of the Assad regime.
Çavuşoğlu said on Monday that operations would send a message to President Assad and put pressure on the regime to enter political negotiations, which Ankara sees as the path for Assad’s departure from power.
“Our aim should be eradicating Daesh from both Syria and Iraq otherwise you cannot bring stability and security….But eliminating the root causes of the situation [in Syria] is also essential, which is the regime of course,” the Foreign Minister said.
The two sides may also be debating the relationship with Syria’s Kurdish movement. The proposed area from Mare’ to Jarablus borders one of the Kurdish cantons that has been established in an offensive against the Islamic State.
Soon after the agreement in late July, Ankara began airstrikes on Turkey’s Kurdish insurgency PKK in northern Iraq. One of the aims of the attacks is to distance the Syrian Kurdish movement, led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), from its Turkish counterparts.
Çavuşoğlu told Reuters in his Monday interview, “Yes, the PYD has been fighting Daesh [the Islamic State]. But the PYD is not fighting for the territorial integrity or political unity of Syria. This is unacceptable.”
There were signals last week, including from President Obama’s envoy Brett McGurk, that differences had been closed in the technical talks. However, it was still unclear if Ankara and Washington had found common ground on the position versus the Assad regime as well as the Islamic State.