Turkey has no choice but to act alone given too little progress has been made with the United States in forming a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said, in his most direct indication of a cross-border offensive.
After eight years of war in neighbouring Syria, Ankara and NATO ally Washington have agreed to establish a zone along 480km (300 miles) of the border that Turkey wants to be 30km deep (19 miles).
Under the Turkish plan, up to two million Syrian refugees would be settled in the area that would be cleared of the Syrian Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara deems “a terrorist organisation”.
Since agreeing to set up the zone in northern Syria, Turkey has repeatedly warned of unilateral military action if efforts do not meet its expectations, saying it would not tolerate any attempts by the US to stall the process.
It set a September-end deadline for action, which passed on Tuesday.
“We have not achieved any of the results we desired in the east of the Euphrates. Turkey cannot lose even a single day on this issue. There is no other choice but to act on our own,” Erdogan said at the parliament’s opening ceremony in Ankara.
“We plan to settle two million people in the safe zones we will establish. We calculated the costs and we will carry out efforts to improve. We will start taking steps as soon as the region is saved from the invasion of terror,” he said.
The US agreed to the “safe zone” as a way to protect its Kurdish allies in Syria and address Turkish concerns about the border, after President Donald Trump announced plans last year to abruptly withdraw 2,000 US special forces troops that helped Kurdish fighters battle the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group.
But the US troops have yet to leave and Washington and Ankara have so far failed to agree on details. Turkey has accused the US of dragging its feet and warned that it would take matters into its own hands.
While diplomats, analysts and Turkey’s main opposition say Ankara would be unwilling to anger Washington with a military incursion as the allies try to repair strained ties, Erdogan’s comments marked the clearest indication of an offensive in the region.
The president said Turkey aimed to host an “international donors meeting” to get funding for its plans in the area, which he said would stretch from the Euphrates River in Syria east to the Iraqi border.
Erdogan has repeatedly called on Turkey’s allies to provide financial support for the plans, including in his speech at the United Nations last month.
But Ankara is unlikely to receive a response for any plan that settles people hundreds of kilometres from their homes and alters the demographics of northeast Syria.
Erdogan, who has supported rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, will also face opposition from Damascus’s most powerful backers: Russia and Iran.
Inside Turkey, where the 3.6 million Syrian refugees have become a heated political issue as the country’s economy struggles to emerge from recession, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) also says Damascus must be involved.
“First of all, any kind of zone which is going to be created within Syrian territory should be controlled by Syrian authorities,” Unal Cevikoz, CHP vice president and former Turkish diplomat, told Reuters news agency.
“We have insistently called on the government that we should get into dialogue with Damascus.”