No withdrawal from Syria before settlements built, local forces trained: Turkish FM

Hande Fırat – BRUSSELS – Hurriyet – 1 April 2017  – Turkey has “successfully accomplished” its months-old military operation into northern Syria, but troops will not be withdrawn soon from the regions under Ankara’s control as it seeks ensure life returns to normal in the area, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has said.

“Residential areas need to be established there. The U.S. says the same thing. Second, local forces that will be deployed to provide protection here need to be trained and equipped. We will evaluate reducing the number of troops or withdrawing entirely only after local forces are fully able to control this area,” Çavuşoğlu told Ankara bureau chiefs aboard a flight to Brussels late on March 30.

Çavuşoğlu and U.S. counterpart Rex Tillerson also discussed during the latter’s visit to Ankara on March 30 the establishment of what Tillerson called “interim stabilization zones” inside Syria for Syrians to be able to return their country. Çavuşoğlu said they proposed working together and encouraging European countries to participate in the project.
However, Çavuşoğlu said Ankara told Tillerson that regions under the control of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) could not be considered “safe zones.”

“He asked us ‘why’ and I explained to him. We are hosting around 300,000 Syrian Kurds who came to us from YPG-controlled regions. The majority of them were forced to leave their homes by the YPG as they do not have the same ideology as this group. [The displaced] don’t accept YPG oppression,” he said, citing examples from Tel Abyad and Afrin.

Turkey considers the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the YPG, as “terrorist” groups linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Çavuşoğlu said he introduced Turkey’s recently finished Euphrates Shield Operation as an example to his U.S. counterpart by explaining the performance of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in seizing many ISIL-controlled cities in northern Syria.
“We told them, ‘We can engage in this operation and we can be successful with you and with special forces from other coalition partners. We can do it with the FSA altogether,’” he said, reiterating Ankara’s concerns that the YPG’s plans were to expand its area of influence by changing the demography of Arab-majority towns to the advantage of Syrian Kurds.

“If we all want the integrity of Syria… [The YPG] goal is certain; they will try to establish a cantonal state. If they enter Raqqa, they won’t leave,” Çavuşoğlu said, adding that he told Tillerson: “Your support for a group attacking your ally will sadden us and this will affect our ties.”

On the U.S. delivery of heavy weapons to the YPG, Çavuşoğlu said Tillerson denied the allegations. Çavuşoğlu, however, told him that Turkey had evidence and urged his counterpart “not to run after short-term gains and engage with a terror group.”
Washington has pledged to work with Turkey for the elimination of the PKK, particularly in the Sinjar region of Iraq and elsewhere in the region, Turkey’s top diplomat said.

“We will absolutely resort to a military option in Sinjar as long as [the PKK] will stay there,” he said. “[Sinjar] is no different from Kandil [a mountain in northern Iraq where PKK has its main headquarters] for us. Today the U.S. said the same thing to us, ‘We have all sorts of plans for the withdrawal and elimination of the PKK everywhere, including Sinjar. We will act together with you.’ [Tillerson] told this to our prime minister and president as well.”
Turkey sees the PKK efforts to expand its area of influence in Sinjar on the Syrian border as a serious threat to its security as it will establish a strong bridge with its affiliates in Syria, the PYD and the YPG.

Tillerson was the highest-level American official from the Trump administration to visit Turkey where he held talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, as well as Çavuşoğlu.  Although Tillerson was clear in U.S. support against the PKK – an organization designated as a terror group by Washington as well – he avoided Turkey’s insistent calls to cease the Pentagon’s support to the YPG as its main ally in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

‘YPG could fall under Russian control’

U.S. officials explained why they had to cooperate with the YPG on the grounds that they do not want to deploy more troops to the field, Çavuşoğlu said. “They say, ‘Otherwise we would have to send more troops. But we want to see options. We have not made a decision yet.’ But their option to work with the YPG is still on the table. My understanding is that they are concerned that the YPG would fall under Russian control if they cease to cooperate with them.”