Turkey threatened to expand a military assault on U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, risking a faceoff with American troops stationed there as frictions with Damascus grew over a brittle agreement.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey would not let Islamic State “resurrect” itself in Syria, unmoved by the Pentagon’s warning that a Turkish military drive against the Kurds could hamper the U.S.-led fight against the jihadists. Turkey considers the Kurdish YPG militia a terrorist affiliate of separatists it’s battled at home for decades, and wants it to retreat from areas close to the Turkish border east of the Euphrates River and the town of Manbij on the western bank.
As a possible precursor of a wider operation, the Turkish army shelled YPG positions west of the Kurdish stronghold of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, on Sunday. “We’re not going to stop there,” Erdogan said. “We will crush the terrorist network.”
U.S. support for the YPG has been one of many points of contention straining Ankara’s ties with Washington in recent years. The Pentagon backed the militia as the most competent bulwark against Islamic State fighters in Syria, but Erdogan fears their territorial gains will embolden the aspirations of some Kurds to form an independent state that would also incorporate Kurdish areas in southeast Turkey.
Erdogan issued a “final warning” for the Kurdish fighters to retreat from sensitive border areas before hosting a summit on Syria’s political future with the leaders of Germany, Russia, Turkey and France last week. The meeting ended with a new appeal for a political solution to the country’s seven-year-old civil war but sidestepped more contentious issues including the future of Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed regime.
Last month, Turkey staved off a Syrian government offensive in the last major rebel stronghold, Idlib, by winning Russia’s agreement to demilitarize the front lines between government and opposition forces in the province. Turkish officials were concerned that an assault would trigger a new wave of refugees across Syria’s border, directly affecting Turkey and Europe.
On Tuesday, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem accused Turkey of not living up to its end of the bargain, saying heavily armed anti-government fighters remained in the demilitarized zone, according to state-run Sana news agency. It’s a sign “Turkey is unwilling to fulfill its obligations” under the accord, the minister said, adding that Syrian coordination with Russia and Turkey over Idlib was “temporary” and that Syria retained the right to recapture its land.
A breakdown in Idlib would hardly be surprising. When the deal was made, U.S. and German officials were skeptical of Turkey’s ability to disarm the opposition forces as promised, according to people familiar with the matter in both of those countries, who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press.
Russia, which engineered the Idlib deal, said the pact is still holding. “So far, we don’t see a threat,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
— With assistance by Dana Khraiche, and Onur Ant
By Selcan Hacaoglu
Sources from: Bloomberg
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