A top United States military official warned that any move by Turkey’s armed forces into northern Syria would not serve the countries’ mutual interests, the state-run news agency Anadolu (AA) reported on Friday.
“We are so focused on finding an acceptable way to address Turkey’s concerns and at the same time maintain campaign continuity against Islamic State (ISIS) in northeast Syria,” said Marine General Joseph Dunford, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday.
Dunford’s remarks came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that Justice and Development Party (AKP) government would start creating a safe zone “according to AKP’s wishes” in northern Syria, east of the Euphrates river, by the end of September.
Erdogan accuses the US of stalling over the establishment of the zone and has repeatedly threatened to act unilaterally, with a potential incursion into northern Syria.
Ankara has been holding talks with Washington in order to set up the safe zone, with the aim of both setting up “a peace corridor” that will allow Syrian refugees to return to their homelands in the country’s north and to clear the area of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it deems as a terrorist organization.
This is due to YPG’s 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) terror group in Syria.
In August, after months of talks, Turkey and the US 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.
On Friday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said joint Turkish-US military patrols in the planned zone are scheduled to begin on September 8.
Akar added that Ankara had made contingency plans to unilaterally clear its border in case of any delays to the zone formation.
Dunford also said the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic group with a central command structure formed by the YPG, needs the support of international coalition in its fight against the remnants of ISIS.
“There is still work to be done, and we estimate some 50,000-60,000 local security forces in total would need to be trained to hold that ground. And we are probably some 50% of the way through,” said Dunford.
ISIS, with its self-declared “caliphate” that once spanned a third of Syria and Iraq, is still widely seen as a big security threat with its sleeper cells and guerrilla attacks by jihadists and affiliates in the regions where it lost control against the coalition-backed YPG.