Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has insisted that Ankara control a “safe zone” in Kurdish-held territory along the Syrian border.
“If a safe zone is to be established along Turkey’s border, that area needs to be under our control. We cannot take precautions after rockets hit our land and need to take precautions beforehand,” Erdoğan told a joint broadcast by the CNNTürk and KanalD channels.
After Donald Trump’s impulsive decision on December 14 to withdraw all 2,000 US troops from Syria — made during a phone call with Erdoğan — the Turkish President announced a 32-km deep zone across the Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Cezire in northern Syria. Ankara demanded that all fighters of the Kurdish militia YPG, backed by the US, withdraw from the area and that the American military retrieve all weapons given to the group, the leading faction in the Syrian Democratic Forces pushing out the Islamic State.
But Turkish plans have been unsettled by the pushback of the US military and senior officials against Trump. They have pushed out the timeline for departure to four to six months, and last week ensured that at least 400 US troops — more than the official number at the end of the Obama Administration — remain. Half will be alongside SDF forces, and half at the US base at Tanf in eastern Syria on the Iraqi border.
TrumpWatch, Day 763: Military Push Back Trump — 400 US Troops to Stay in SyriaTrumpWatch, Day 763: Military Push Back Trump — 400 US Troops to Stay in Syria
The US created the SDF in autumn 2015, and the forces has reduced ISIS to a final position of about a square mile. But Turkey considers the YPG as “terrorists” who are part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK.
Last month Erdoğan refused to meet National Security Advisor John Bolton, the leading proponent of an ongoing US presence in Syria. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Ankara not to attack Kurdish areas in the event of an American withdrawal.
Erdoğan spoke by phone with Trump on Thursday, just before the revelation of US troops staying in Syria. No details were given of the call, with Erdoğan saying yesterday, “We have a positive relationship with Mr. Trump, which allows us to resolve many issues in an easier manner.”
But Turkey State outlets said on Saturday that Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, in talks in the US with Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, repeated that all YPG fighters must leave the “safe zone”.
At the same time, Akar sought clarity in the US position, saying any withdrawal must not be chaotic and leave a vacuum.
Kurdish groups control about 27% of Syria, in the north and the east. In March 2018, Turkish forces and Syrian rebels captured the Kurdish canton of Afrin in the northwest.