Ankara has vowed to launch an operation to clear the area east of the Euphrates from the U.S.-backed People's Protection Units (YPG), the PKK's Syrian affiliate, if the planned safe zone is not established and threats to Turkey continue. "If the planned safe zone is not established and threats to Turkey continue, an operation will be launched east of the Euphrates River to oust the YPG from the region," Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said yesterday. Çavuşoğlu's remarks came ahead of a talk with an American delegation led by U.S. Special Representative on Syria James Jeffrey, later in the day in Ankara.
The possible safe zone along the border with Turkey was also on the agenda. Jeffrey, who also serves as the U.S. special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh, had meetings with senior Turkish officials in the capital. According to sources from the Foreign Ministry, Jeffrey's meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal lasted almost three hours and focused on issues including the safe zone, the latest situation in Idlib, the political process in Syria and the constitutional committee. Speaking on Turkish broadcaster TGRT Haber yesterday, Çavuşoğlu evaluated Jeffrey's visit and the latest situation in Syria. He also expressed his hope that an agreement can be reached in talks with Jeffrey on a planned safe zone in Syria. Turkey strongly opposes the YPG's presence in Manbij, which has been a major sticking point in strained Turkey-U.S. relations, due to the latter's support for the YPG under the pretext of fighting Daesh.
The YPG has organic organizational and operational links with the PKK, a group considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the EU and Turkey. The U.S. has provided military training and given truckloads of military support to the YPG, despite its NATO ally's security concerns.
To reduce tensions, Turkey and the U.S. agreed on a road map in June 2018 foreseeing the withdrawal of the YPG from Manbij and installing joint Turkish-American patrols, which began in November. However, the process has been sluggish as the terrorist group was still present in the city despite the three-month timetable set for implementing the deal.
Ankara has been pointing out that it will not allow the YPG to strengthen its grip in Syria. Turkey is also prepared to launch an operation east of the Euphrates to eliminate the YPG. However, following the U.S. decision to withdraw from Syria in December, Ankara decided to put the operation on hold for some time. While establishing a safe zone would eliminate some of Turkey's concerns, the presence of the YPG in Syria and its plan to form a quasi-state will continue to present a threat to the country. Until now, Turkey and the U.S. did not discuss in detail where the safe zone would be and what would happen to the YPG militants. Turkish officials had been waiting for Washington to clarify what they meant by the 20-mile-deep safe zone. As Turkey was waiting for the U.S. to take more concrete steps, Turkey carried out two cross-border operations west of the Euphrates River, Operation Euphrates Shield launched in August 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in January 2018, to drive terrorist groups, including the YPG and Daesh, from its borders.
Jeffrey's visit came upon an invitation by the Turkish government, according to the written statement by the U.S. State Department.
"Ambassador Jeffrey is leading an interagency delegation to continue discussions with senior Turkish officials to advance issues of mutual interest on Syria to include, addressing Turkey's legitimate security concerns, the implementation of UNSCR 2254 on the resolution of the Syrian conflict, and our continued efforts to ensure an enduring defeat of ISIS [Daesh]," read the statement.