BEIRUT: Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters pledged on Friday to back a potential cross-border offensive that Ankara has threatened to mount against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria. The US-led coalition and Turkey conducted on Friday their third joint patrol in northeastern Syria, they said, part of a plan designed to defuse tensions between Washington’s two allies — Ankara and the Syrian Kurds.
The two countries have agreed to set up a zone in northeast Syria along the border with Turkey, which wants to expel the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia from the frontier.
The patrol followed a telephone call late on Thursday between Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper in which Akar reiterated that Turkey woul not accept a delay in the creation of what it calls “a safe zone” and would act alone if necessary to set it up.
Turkey has accused the US, which helped the YPG defeat Daesh militants, of moving too slowly to establish the zone.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that given the lack of progress Turkey had no choice but to act alone — his most direct indication yet of a military incursion.
US support for YPG fighters has infuriated Ankara, which sees them as linked to the Kurdish PKK movement that has waged a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey.
“When it comes to the east of the Euphrates (river) ... it is our duty to fight,” Salim Idris, an official of the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition, told a news conference in southeast Turkey. “We stand in full force in support of our Turkish brothers in fighting all forms of terrorism represented by the PKK gangs.”
With ties between the NATO allies already under strain, diplomats and analysts say Erdogan would be unwilling to anger Washington with a full-scale incursion into northeast Syria, where US forces are stationed alongside the YPG.
When it comes to the east of the Euphrates (river) ... it is our duty to fight,” Salim Idris, an official of the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition.
Salim Idris, A Syrian opposition official
But Turkey, which has twice launched military offensives with its insurgent allies in northern Syria in recent years, has been pressing for more efforts to set up the border zone.
US and Turkish troops have so far carried out half-a-dozen joint air missions over northeast Syria and three land patrols, including one on Friday, in what Washington describes as “concrete steps” to address Ankara’s concerns.
Turkey, which backs opposition fighters holding tracts of territory in northwest Syria near its border, also has about a dozen military posts in the nearby Idlib region.
The Turkey-backed Syrian opposition also announced on Friday that a number of Idlib opposition factions were merging with the National Army, the main opposition grouping that Turkey supports in the northwest.
The move may help widen Ankara’s influence in Idlib province, where militants formerly linked to Al-Qaeda are the dominant force.