Turkey will launch a military operation in northern Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed, Turkish media outlets reported on Sunday.
Turkey is aiming to create a safe zone in the region in an effort to clear the area, east of the Euphrates River, of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which forms the central command structure of the United States (US)-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Turkey regards the Kurdish YPG as a terrorist group due to its affiliation with the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a rebel group that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.
“We entered Afrin, Jarablus, and Al-Bab. Now we will enter the [area] east of the Euphrates,” Erdogan told the crowds in an opening ceremony of Istanbul-Izmir motorway in the northwestern province of Bursa.
If done, it will be the third Turkish incursion in the region to dislodge Kurdish militia fighters from close to Turkey’s southern border.
Most parts of the northern and north-western regions of Syria were taken under Turkish control during the two previous offensives in 2016 and 2018 to clear the areas of the ISIS members and the YPG.
The Turkish president said both Russia and the US have been informed of the military operation, but did not provide detail on the time to begin.
“As long as harassment fire continues, we cannot remain silent. We can only be patient to some degree. There is an end to that patience,” Erdogan said.
Ankara and Washington have been discussing the establishment of a safe zone in Syria, with Turkish authorities accusing the US administration of stalling the process as no concrete steps have been taken yet.
Turkey is also demanding that the US sever its relations with the YPG.
Erdogan’s threatening message came a day before a U.S. military delegation holds talks in Ankara with Turkish officials on the safe zone issue.
Turkey was not satisfied with the US proposal presented by a US delegation led by its Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey last month and started deploying troops and equipment near the Syrian border, including heavy weapons, armored vehicles, and tanks, signaling a possible offensive.
The state-run news agency Anadolu (AA) reported late on Sunday that three Syrian rebel fighters backed by Turkey were killed during clashes with the YPG.
Clashes of such kinds are frequent in the region as the YPG tries to infiltrate the front lines in Syria’s al-Bab area, where Turkey carved out a de facto buffer zone in its 2016 “Euphrates Shield” offensive. However, casualties are rare in those clashes.
The YPG administration released a statement on Thursday objecting to Turkish the area. It called on the international community to take a stance against Turkey’s threats.
“Turkey’s threats pose a danger in the area and a peaceful solution in Syria and any Turkish aggression in the area will open the way for the return of Daesh (ISIS), and that aggression will also contribute to the widening of the circle of Turkish occupation in Syria,” read the statement.
Responding to a question by Reuters on Erdogan’s latest remarks, an unnamed US official said: “Bilateral discussions with Turkey continue on the possibility of a safe zone with U.S. and Turkish forces that addresses Turkey’s legitimate security concerns in northern Syria.”
Early last week, Turkish defense minister Hulusi Akar had told his US counterpart that Ankara would create a safe zone on its own unless an agreement was reached with Washington.