Turkey had in the past warned of carrying out military operations east of the Euphrates River, but put them on hold after agreeing with the US to create a safe zone inside Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey that would be cleared of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia.
But Ankara has accused Washington of stalling progress on setting up the safe zone and has demanded it sever its relations with the YPG.
The group was Washington’s main ally on the ground in Syria during the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), but Turkey sees it as a “terrorist organisation” allied with the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).
The planned operation would mark Turkey’s third incursion into Syria in as many years. Turkey conducted two operations into northern Syria in 2016 and 2018 to clear the areas of ISIL members and the YPG.
“We entered Afrin, Jarablus, and Al-Bab. Now we will enter the east of the Euphrates,” Erdogan said during a motorway-opening ceremony in the city of Bursa.
Turkey has been deploying large numbers of troops to the border with Syria in recent days.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Gaziantep, Turkey, said a new delegation from Washington was due to arrive in Ankara on Monday for further talks, but it is difficult to predict whether the two NATO allies will be able to find common ground.
“[Turkey] has carried out cross-border operations over the past two years, but on both occasions, the area of operations was under the sphere of influence of Russia,” Khodr said.
“Turkey and Russia cooperate on Syria. But east of the Euphrates is an area under the control of the US which is allied with the YPG.
“Deep differences remain over a planned safe zone… Turkey is insisting it is 20km deep and Turkey insists that it controls the zone which is something the US so far has not accepted,” Khodr said.
Asked about Erdogan’s comments, a US official told Reuters: “Bilateral discussions with Turkey continue on the possibility of a safe zone with US and Turkish forces that addresses Turkey’s legitimate security concerns in northern Syria.”
Overnight, three Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters were killed during clashes with the YPG, state-owned Anadolu Agency reported on Sunday.
It said the YPG tried to infiltrate the front lines in Syria’s al-Bab area, where Turkey carved out a de facto buffer zone in its 2016 “Euphrates Shield” offensive.
Clashes such as these are frequent in the area, but casualties tend to be rare.
On Thursday, the Kurdish-led administration running north and east Syria issued a statement objecting to Turkish threats to attack the area.
“These threats pose a danger on the area and on a peaceful solution in Syria, and any Turkish aggression on the area will open the way for the return of [ISIL], and that aggression will also contribute to the widening of the circle of Turkish occupation in Syria,” the statement said.
It called on the international community to take a stance that stops Turkey from carrying out its threats.