Turkey to set up Syria ‘security zone’

Istanbul: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that Ankara would set up a “security zone” in northern Syria suggested by US President Donald Trump.
Erdogan’s comments came a day after he held a telephone call with Trump in a bid to ease tensions after the US leader threatened to “devastate” the Turkish economy if Ankara attacks Kurdish forces.
Turkey has welcomed Washington’s planned withdrawal of some 2,000 US troops from Syria but the future of US-backed Kurdish militia forces labelled terrorists by Ankara has poisoned ties between the Nato allies.
Erdogan said he held a “quite positive” telephone conversation with Trump late on Monday where he reaffirmed that “a 20 mile (30 kilometre) security zone along the Syrian border… will be set up by us.” Trump on Sunday tweeted the United States would “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds”, a threat that drew angry retorts from Ankara.
The Turkish army has launched two major operations in Syria dubbed “Euphrates Shield” in 2016 and “Olive Branch” in 2018 to combat against Syrian Kurdish fighters as well as Islamic State jihadists.
But the last offensive sought to roll back gains by Syrian Kurdish fighters who have governed parts of northern Syria since 2012.
The deployment of Turkish troops and their proxy forces in areas of northwest Syria has drawn accusations by some critics of a Turkish military occupation.
Erdogan dismissed the label and said: “Comparing Turkey’s presence in Syria with that of any other state or power is an insult to both history and our civilisation.
“If we did not have a presence there, if we turned our back on what is going on over there, closed our borders and our hearts to people coming from there, then we would have betrayed ourselves, indeed.”
Turkey is home to over three million Syrian refugees. Since early in the conflict, Ankara has called for a safe area backed up by a no-fly zone on its border with Syria to protect civilians from air and ground attacks.
But the support for the proposal has waned ever since.
That plan was proposed to Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, so that a safe structure could be provided for Syrian refugees on the condition that Washington provide logistics and air support, while Ankara supply ground security, Erdogan said.
“Unfortunately Obama failed to take the necessary steps,” he said, speaking to journalists after his parliamentary address.
But after the discussion with Trump, Erdogan said that plan could be resurrected and the 20 mile “security zone” could be extended if needed. And it could be created in cooperation with the US-backed international coalition fighting against IS, which Turkey is also a member of.
“We could create such a safe zone if coalition forces especially America provide logistical and financial support,” Erdogan said.
“That would also entirely prevent an influx (of refugees).” The Turkish leader however dismissed any presence of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in that zone.
US support for the YPG during the Syria conflict has been a major source of friction between Ankara and Washington. The US regards the YPG as an effective ground force in the fight against IS extremists.
Ankara has however threatened to launch a cross-border operation to eradicate Syrian Kurdish fighters it sees as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The PKK, which has carried out a decades-long insurgency against Turkish forces, is blacklisted by Turkey as well as by the United States.
But there have been concerns in Washington that Kurdish groups are being abandoned to attacks in the future by the far more powerful Turkish military.
Erdogan on Tuesday said Trump’s tweet “saddened me and my friends”, but added that the two leaders reached an agreement “of historic importance” during Monday’s phone call.
He said Turkey would solve issues with a “spirit of alliance” with Trump as long as his country’s sensitivities were taken into account.
Trump’s message also drew angry outburst from the main opposition party in Turkey.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the Republican People’s Party, said: “Nobody can threaten Turkey like a street bully.” — AFP