Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar discussed a potential cross-border operation in east of the Euphrates River in Syria with military commanders on Thursday, the Reuters news agency reported.
The discussions with the commanders follow a series of talks over the latest developments in northern Syria with a US delegation led by its Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey.
After the meeting with commanders, Akar spoke to media outlets, referring to a likely military offensive unless an agreement on a planned safe zone in Syria could be reached with the US.
“We expressed all our views and proposals to the [US] delegation. We expect them to review these proposals and give their answers immediately. We once again stressed that we cannot tolerate a delay and we will take the initiative if necessary,” Akar said.
Turkey has not been satisfied with the US proposal presented by the special envoy this week.
The minister told the commanders that they had informed the US delegation about their views and proposals concerning the planned safe zone and the Manbij roadmap, state-run news agency Anadolu (AA) said.
Turkey has recently been deploying troops and equipment near the Syrian border, including heavy weapons, armored vehicles, and tanks, signaling a possible offensive on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria.
In response to Akar’s statement, US State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus called the situation “incredibly sensitive”, referring to the presence of US troops in the region.
“This is an incredibly sensitive issue. We have American troops present there. We all continue to work closely with Turkey. Ambassador Jeffrey is working very hard on this issue of the safe zone with Turkey,” Ortagus said.
On June 4 last year, after US President Donald Trump abruptly announced his intention to withdraw US forces from Syria, the two NATO allies reached an agreement on a roadmap for the withdrawal of the YPG from Manbij, the east of the Euphrates river, and the formation of a local civil administration.
Later, the US administration changed the course of its withdrawal plans after facing pressure from its European allies. A significant legion of US forces, along with European troops, will lead the mission for the formation of a safe zone.
Turkey has long criticized the US administration, accusing it of stalling the process as no concrete steps have yet been taken on the establishment of a safe zone.
Turkish authorities have been determined to develop a safe zone in northern Syria for several reasons. One is the aim of relocating and accommodating some of the millions of refugees to northern Syria, and another is to contain the expansion of YPG militia in the region.
On Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara had run out of patience with Washington regarding its reluctance to proceed with the safe zone establishment.
“We got the impression that they want to enter a stalling process here as in Manbij. We need to reach an agreement regarding the safe zone as soon as possible because we have no patience left,” Cavusoglu said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had first signaled the military operation early this year, however, later put it on hold.
“Despite all our work, the end-goal of the Manbij roadmap has not been reached. There are still around 1,000 terrorists [the YPG militias] in the region,” Reuters quoted an unnamed Turkish official as saying.
A Washington statement released by Pentagon Spokesman Commander Sean Robertson repeated the importance of coordination and consultation between the US and Turkey to address security concerns, defining it “the only way”.
“We have made clear that unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as US personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern. We would find any such actions unacceptable,” read the statement.
The YPG, which forms the central command structure of US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting against Islamic State (ISIS), is a Kurdish militia that Turkey regards as a terrorist group due to its affiliation with the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a rebellious group which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.
ISIS aims to create an Islamic state, known as a caliphate, across Iraq and Syria. Redrawing the map of the Middle East, ISIS controlled more than 34,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq in 2014, spreading from the Mediterranean coast to the south of Baghdad. US-backed coalition forces have been notably successful in taking back territory since 2017.