Turkey warns US against delays in establishing Syria safe zone

Recep Tayyip Erdogan says removal of Kurdish forces from border area must 'advance rapidly'

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with U.S. Ambassador to Turkey David M. Satterfield during a ceremony to receive credentials from newly appointed foreign ambassadors to Turkey at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, August 28, 2019. Cem Oksuz/Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE

Turkey will not tolerate delays in the implementation of a deal with the United States to set up a "safe zone" along its border with north-eastern Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

Washington and Ankara reached an agreement this month to move US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces away from the border and to jointly administer the area. Turkey considers the Kurdish YPG militia, which led a US-backed Syrian force that defeated ISIS in northern Syria, a terrorist group.

"The agreement which we have reached with the USA is a correct step towards establishing a safe zone and removing the YPG from the east of the Euphrates," Mr Erdogan told reporters on his way back from a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Ankara this week reported progress on implementing the safe zone agreement with the start of operations by a Turkish-American centre to oversee the area, but accuses the US of failing to fully implement an earlier deal to remove YPG fighters from the northern Syrian city of Manbij.

"We will never tolerate a delay like we saw in Manbij. The process must advance rapidly," Mr Erdogan was quoted as saying by CNN Turk on Thursday.

Kurdish officials in north-east Syria said on Tuesday that the YPG had withdrawn from border positions in Tal Abyad and Ras Al Ain, and that the militia would pull forces and heavy weapons from the entire strip.

Mr Erdogan said this week that Turkey would mount a cross-border offensive on its own to clear the YPG militia from its border if necessary. "All the personnel, the armoured carriers, all are on the border. That is, we are in a position to do everything at any moment," he said.

The safe zone was proposed by US President Donald Trump last year after backtracked on plans to withdraw US special forces from northern Syria amid an outcry over abandoning Washington’s Kurdish allies.

US support for the YPG has enraged Turkey, which views the militia as a terrorist organisation linked to Kurdish insurgents inside the country.

Mr Erdogan discussed the situation in Syria with Mr Trump in a phone call on Wednesday night. The Turkish presidency said the two leaders discussed the situation in the Idlib region, another area of concern for Turkey on its border with Syria, but made no mention of the safe zone.

They "agreed to continue co-operation for the protection of civilians in Idlib where regime attacks continue, and prevention of new humanitarian crises", the Turkish presidency said.

The Syrian government's Russia-backed offensive on the rebel-held north-western region was the main focus of Mr Erdogan's visit to Moscow.

Turkey, which supports Syrian rebel groups, has several military outposts in Idlib that were set up under a failed ceasefire deal reached with Russia last September. Ankara fears that an all-out assault will force a massive wave of refugees towards Turkey, which already hosts about three million Syrians who fled there since the country's civil war began in 2011.