The US State Department has urged Turkey not to take any action in northern Syria, calling on Ankara to remain focused on the fight against Daesh. But Turkey dispatched its military chief to Moscow, to negotiate for an air campaign in Afrin.
The US State Department urged Turkey on Thursday not to take military action against Afrin region in Syria and called instead for Ankara to remain focused on fighting Daesh in the region.
In a series of statements since Sunday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to launch an operation against towns in Syria controlled by YPG militants, calling the areas “nests” of terror.
At a news briefing, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Washington wanted Turkey to abstain from violence in the northwestern city of Afrin.
“We would call […] on the Turks to not take any actions of that sort,” Nauert said. “We don’t want them to engage in violence but we want them to keep focused on ISIS [Daesh].”
Turkey has long protested US support for the YPG, while Washington has ignored its status as a PKK offshoot, calling it a “reliable ally” in its fight against Daesh in Syria.
Listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU, the PKK has waged a terror campaign against Turkey for more than 30 years.
Syrian regime handed over Afrin to the YPG/PKK without putting up a fight, and there are currently some 8,000-10,000 militants in the area, according to information gathered by Anadolu Agency.
After Turkey warned of their presence in Afrin, militants are now hiding out in shelters and pits in residential areas there.
An operation in Afrin—a region bordering Turkey’s Hatay and Kilis provinces—is widely expected in the wake of Turkey’s seven-month Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria, which ended in March 2017.
Negotiation for Air Campaign
Turkey dispatched its military chief to Moscow on Thursday, to negotiate for an air campaign in the Afrin region, although Damascus warned it could shoot down any Turkish planes in its skies.
Turkey’s foreign minister said the Moscow trip by Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar was part of talks with both Russia and Iran, the two main backers of Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad, to allow Turkish planes to take part in an Afrin campaign.
“We will intervene in Afrin,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told broadcaster CNN Turk, adding he did not expect Russia to oppose any operation there.
“We are meeting the Russians and Iran on the use of air space.”
The diplomacy was the strongest signal yet that Turkey plans direct military action against territory held by the militants, potentially opening a new front in Syria’s war.
Afrin, Idlib “and the future of Syria”
Cavusoglu said Akar would hold talks in Moscow with Russia’s armed forces chief to discuss Afrin, Idlib “and the future of Syria”.
Turkey needed to take into account the presence of a small number of Russian observers in Afrin, he said. “When we carry out an intervention, we need to coordinate on this, it should not impact the Russian observers.”
Cavusoglu said attacks were being targeted against Turkey from Afrin every day.
The region of northern Syria controlled by Turkey-backed Syrian rebels was also being attacked, he said.
Turkey has ratcheted up its threats to take military action in Afrin in the past week, in response to US plans to support setting up a 30,000-strong force to guard areas held by the YPG militants in a large part of Syria east of Afrin.
“Our response to this is our legitimate right to retaliate. We told the United States this,” Cavusoglu said, adding that Turkey was not satisfied with US attempts to allay its concern over US support for the YPG-led border force.
At my meeting w/ #US Secretary of State #RexTillerson in #Vancouver, I clearly stressed grave consequences of US initiative on establishment of so-called “Northern Army” with terrorist #PYD/YPG & reemphasized our strong determination to eliminate any threat against #Turkey. pic.twitter.com/LPo2JqoBaL
— Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (@MevlutCavusoglu) January 17, 2018
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he met Cavusoglu to clarify the issue, and said the situation had been “misportrayed, misdescribed”.
“We voiced our discomfort in the meetings we held with the Secretary of Defence and the Secretary of State … However, the United States’ statements did not fully satisfy us,” he said.
“Our direct mistrust of the United States continues.”
Erdogan called the new US-backed border force a “terror army” on Turkey’s border and vowed to “strangle it before it’s even born”.
In recent days Turkey has deployed tanks near the border with Syria across from the Afrin region, and Erdogan says Turkey’s military has shelled militants there.