Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to a group of US businessmen at his palace in Ankara on Tuesday. Associated Press
Turkey accused the United States on Tuesday of taking only “cosmetic steps” toward the creation of a so-called “safe zone” in northeast Syria and renewed Ankara’s threat of unilateral military intervention to form a buffer area along its border.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told journalists that Washington was too strongly involved with US-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters and was stalling on plans for the safe zone.
Turkey has been pressing for the zone to keep the Syrian Kurdish fighters away from the border.
Ankara considers the fighters terrorists, claiming they are linked to a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey’s borders.
The Syrian Kurdish fighters were the top US allies in the war against the Daesh group in Syria.
“We are speaking about an ally who cannot act independently from the terror organisation,” Cavusoglu said, referring to the US “While on one side, it is taking cosmetic steps with us, on the other side, it is strengthening its engagement with” Syrian Kurdish fighters.
He was referring to recent joint Turkish-US helicopter patrols of the planned safe zone region, as well as a joint ground forces patrol that took place on Sunday. US troops on Saturday also conducted patrols with the local Syrian Kurdish-led forces, which annoyed Turkey.
“Turkey’s plans are ready,” Cavusoglu said.
“To clear this region of terrorists is a matter of national security.”
The minister’s comments came as two US military officials were visiting Turkey for talks on what Ankara calls “safe zone.”
The US and Syrian Kurdish forces refer to it as a “security mechanism.”
Turkey’s defence ministry said a delegation headed by Lt. Gen. Stephen Twitty, deputy commander of the US European Command, and Lieutenant General Thomas Bergeson, deputy commander of the US Central Command, met Turkish military officials on Tuesday.
The ministry said more discussions would be held on Wednesday at a joint operations centre near Turkey’s border with Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said on Sunday rifts remain in the way Turkey and the US envision the zone, claiming Washington was “trying to create a safe zone for the terrorist organisation, not for us.”
So far, the Kurdish-led forces have withdrawn as deep as 14 kilometres from the border and have removed defensive positions, sand berms and trenches. The depth of the zone, as well as who will control it, is still being worked out.
Turkey has carried out several incursions into Syria during the country’s civil war in an effort to curb the expanding influence of the Kurdish forces.
Meanwhile, air strikes hit a part of northwest Syria for the first time since a ceasefire in the region was declared 10 days ago, a war monitor and rebel spokesman said on Tuesday.
Russia denied that its forces, which back Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s government in the eight-year-old conflict, had carried out any such attacks.
The government and Russia unilaterally agreed to a truce on Aug.31 in opposition-controlled Idlib, where a “de-escalation zone” was brokered two years ago.
Since then, the intense air strikes by Russian and Syrian warplanes that had accompanied a Syrian government push to re-take the area have stopped, although there has been ground fighting and shelling.
The United States said its forces had carried out strikes against an Al Qaeda facility in Idlib on the day the ceasefire came into effect.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor, based in Britain, said planes had carried out two raids in the strategic Jabal al-Akrad mountain range near the western Latakia coast.
It was not clear if these raids signal a return to the Russian and Syrian campaign of heavy air strikes.
The Russian Defence Ministry denied that Russian or Syrian warplanes struck the Idlib de-escalation zone.
“Russian and Syrian air forces have not been carrying out any military missions to hit ground targets,” a statement carried by RIA news agency said.
Mohammad Rashid, spokesman for the Jaish al-Nasr rebel faction, said the two raids, which he believed were carried out by Russian planes, were the first since the ceasefire began.
The truce was the second declared in August in Idlib, the only major swathe of the country still in rebel hands after more than eight years of war.