Turkey expects a “safe zone” to be set up in Syria along the Turkish border within a few months, otherwise it will establish the buffer alone, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
Erdogan previously said he and US President Donald Trump had discussed setting up a 32km security zone in Syria along the border, after Trump’s decision to withdraw all 2,000 US troops from Syria. The technical aspects of the area were still being discussed.
“We expect the promise of a security zone – a buffer zone aimed at protecting our country from terrorists – to be fulfilled in a few months,” Erdogan told a televised rally on Friday, referring to the Syrian Kurdish militia that controls the area along the border and is deemed a “terror” group by Ankara.
“Otherwise, we will definitely form this safe or buffer zone ourselves. Our only expectation from our allies is that they provide logistical support to Turkey’s effort,” he added during the speech in the eastern province of Erzurum.
Erdogan’s statement came after Turkey’s foreign minister said on Thursday it has the capacity to create a safe zone in Syria on its own, but will not exclude the US, Russia, or others if they want to cooperate.
Turkey is seeking the zone to contain the US-allied fighters of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which the US has armed and trained to fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS).
The YPG is seen as an effective ground force by the US in the fight against ISIL, but Turkey says it is linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara and Washington list as a terrorist group.
‘Will not wait forever’
Ankara has threatened for months to launch an offensive in northern Syria to drive out US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Turkish forces shelled YPG positions in the northern Syrian region of Tal Rifaat for a third consecutive day, state media reported on Friday.
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Tal Rifaat is located some 20km west of Afrin, which has been under the control of Turkey and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies since an operation last year aimed at driving out the YPG militia.
The YPG still controls the small region of Tal Rifaat, wedged between an area under Turkish control to the north and areas controlled by the Syrian government and anti-Syrian government rebels to the south.
Turkish howitzers fired shots on YPG targets, according to Anadolu news agency. The report did not mention any casualties.
The defence ministry said on Thursday its forces had responded to YPG harassment fire from Tal Rifaat on Turkish elements operating in the Afrin region.
Erdogan put the offensive on hold after Trump made a surprise announcement in December to pull out its some 2,000 troops, which was welcomed by the Turkish government.
Washington’s request for guarantees for the safety of YPG during the withdrawal remains an issue with Ankara fiercely rejecting any conditions.
Turkey has repeatedly called for a safe zone in northern Syria to drive out YPG fighters and to protect civilians but it has never come to fruition so far.
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Trump’s floating the idea has put the issue back on Ankara’s agenda but Erdogan said on Friday there would be a limit to his government’s patience.
“Our patience has a limit,” Erdogan said. “We will not wait forever the fulfilment of the promises given to us.”
The US-allied Kurds, who control much of the north, have rejected the idea of a “security zone”, fearing a Turkish offensive against territory under their control.
The Turkish leader expressed Ankara’s determination to clear the east of the Euphrates River in Syria of YPG and ISIL fighters.
Erdogan and other Turkish officials have insisted over the last few days that Turkey had the right to intervene in Syria under a 1998 protocol signed with Damascus.
Erdogan and Trump have had several phone conversations to discuss the proposed security zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, as well as the US troops’ withdrawal from Syria.