Turkey will implement its own operational plan to establish a safe zone in northeastern Syria if control of the proposed zone is not given to Turkish troops within a few weeks, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday.
“We do not have much time or patience regarding the safe zone which will be established along our entire border east of the Euphrates (river),” the president said at the National Defense University’s graduation ceremony in Istanbul.
The decision to create the center came after months of talks between the two NATO allies, with the latter accusing the US of stalling over the establishment of the zone.
In August, after months of talks, Turkey and the United States (US) have formed a joint operations center in the southeastern province of Sanliurfa to monitor the buffer zone along the border with Syria.
The two, however, have disagreed over the size of the zone or the command structure of the forces to operate there.
“If our soldiers do not control the region within a few weeks, we will put our own operation plan into effect,” Erdogan said, adding that he ordered the Turkish army to start setting up the zone in two to three weeks.
Ankara accuses the US of stalling the establishment of the zone. Since early August, Turkey had intensified military deployment on its southern border for a potential incursion into northern Syria. However, the talks appear to have reduced the prospects of a Turkish military operation which Turkish authorities repeatedly threatened.
Last week, the Kurdish-led authority in northeastern Syria announced that they would withdraw from a 5-14 km-wide strip along Syria-Turkey border in line with a recent deal between the two NATO allies.
The YPG has recently withdrawn from the Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain border positions, pulling forces and heavy weapons from a strip border.
Erdogan’s Turkey wants the safe zone to be 20km wide and seeks to set up the zone with full control over it in order to clear the area east of the Euphrates River of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it deems as a terrorist organization over their alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); an armed insurgent group fighting a decades-old insurgency for Kurdish self-rule in southeast Turkey against the Turkish state.
The YPG is also deemed an important US ally in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.
With the safe zone, Turkey also plans to set up what it calls a peace corridor that would also allow Syrian refugees to return to their homelands in the country’s north.
Tens of thousands of Syrians have recently headed towards the Turkish border as the Russia-backed forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad advanced into Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in Syria.
The Russian military has announced a unilateral ceasefire in Idlib which went into effect on Saturday at 6 am local time, following displaced Syrians’ protests at the frontier demanding protection from Turkey.
Turkey and Russia support different sides in war-torn Syria, with Moscow backing al-Assad regime while Ankara backing rebels.