Armed forces of Turkey and the United States (US) began joint patrols in a planned safe zone in northern Syria on Sunday as part of a roadmap that was agreed on last month, Reuters reported on Sunday.
The troops joined some 15 kilometers (nine miles) east of the Turkish border town of Akcakale, near Syria’s Tel Abyad and headed south for several hours before returning to Turkey. Two military helicopters hovered briefly overhead as well.
The military vehicles of the two countries crossed into Syria to establish the high-stakes safe zone along a border region controlled by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Ankara deems the YPG to be a terrorist organization due to its 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.
In contrast, the US sees the YPG as an important ally in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.
Speaking hours after the joint patrols began in northern Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the two countries have constantly disagreed over establishing the planned zone.
“We are negotiating with the U.S. for the safe zone, but we see at every step that what we want and what they have in mind is not the same thing,” the president said. “It seems that our ally is looking for a safe zone for the terrorist organization, not for us. We reject such an understanding.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government also condemned the joint US-Turkish patrols in the northeast of the country, saying it was a “flagrant violation” of its sovereignty.
In a statement to the government-run Syrian Arab News Agency an official of the Foreign and Expatriates Ministry said: “The Syrian Arab Republic condemns in the strongest terms launching joint patrols by the US administration and the Turkish regime in the Syrian al-Jazeera region in a flagrant violation of international law and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic.”
With US backing, the YPG-led SDF forces have taken control of most of northeastern Syria, taking over territory that was originally controlled by ISIS as part of its self-declared caliphate.
Erdogan’s Turkey wants to push back the YPG militias from its borders and to send 1 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in the country to the safe zone.
The Kurdish YPG is accused by tribal leaders and rights groups of preventing the Arabs from returning to their former homes, while Kurdish leaders claim they have long been victims of Arab discrimination.
The al-Assad regime accuses the YPG of working toward separatism, a charge the YPG denies, but has insisted that the Assad regime would have to give greater recognition to Kurds in the future.
Some Arab residents in some of the villages reportedly greeted and waved at Turkish troops during the joint patrol.
Turkey and the US have been hashing out the details of the safe zone in recent months. In August, they set up a joint operation center in Turkey’s Sanliurfa province and conducted joint helicopter patrols. They have, however, so far disagreed over the size and oversight of the zone.
“The joint patrol demonstrates our continued commitment to address Turkey’s legitimate security concerns, while also allowing the coalition and our SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces of which the YPG is a part] partners to remain focused on achieving the enduring defeat of the ISIS,” The US Combined Joint Task Force said on Sunday.
“The joint patrols are part of a road map to attain stability in a way that contributes to its efforts to pursue the ISIS and uproot them,” the SDF said.
Erdogan repeated on Sunday that Turkey would act alone in the northeast if a de facto safe zone with Turkish soldiers is not established by the end of September.