Turkey’s Erdoğan says Syria’s territorial integrity depends on maintaining distance from terrorism

Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Wednesday that Syria’s territorial integrity depends on maintaining a distance from all terrorist organizations, a reference to US support for a Syrian Kurdish militia that Ankara considers an enemy.

Erdoğgn also said that hope for success in Syria was growing stronger. He made the comments at a joint news conference with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin following a tripartite summit on Syria held in Ankara.

“Syria’s territorial integrity is sine qua non for us,” Erdoğan said, and pointed out that the Middle East had paid a heavy price for “subdivisions of those outside Syria” and said those subdivisions “are null and void for us.”

“I find it useful to repeat it here once again that we [Turkey] will not stop until all regions under PYD/PKK control, primarily Manbij, are secured… We will never allow either Syria or our region to be attacked by a few terrorist groups,” said Erdoğan, adding,  “No understanding that fails to accept that ISIL and PYD/YPG serve the same aim can ever contribute to lasting peace and stability in Syria.”

Russian President Putin also said, “The joint decision of Turkey, Russia and Iran is to ensure Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.” He added the three leaders discussed how to establish permanent normalization in Syria.

Rouhani told the leaders of Turkey and Russia on Wednesday that the Syrian region of Afrin, captured by Turkish military forces and their Syrian rebel allies, should be handed over to Syria’s army, Iranian television said. “The developments in Afrin can only be useful if they do not violate Syria’s territorial integrity, and control of these areas should be handed over to the Syrian army,” Rouhani said at the summit in Ankara.

Rouhani also blamed the US for backing ISIL in Syria and called on all countries to respect the independence of its main Arab ally in the Middle East. “Some countries, including America, support terrorist groups like ISIL in Syria, which serve these countries’ interests… Iran believes the Syrian crisis has no military solution and safeguarding independence of Syria a priority for Tehran,” said Rouhani.

Meanwhile, a top Syrian Kurdish politician suggested on Wednesday that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Iraqi government could mount joint operations against ISIL in the area on the border of the two countries.

Aldar Xelil warned of a jihadist revival in eastern Syria, where operations by the US-backed SDF have tapered off since they diverted fighters to the northwest to fight a Turkish offensive. “Iraq is a neighboring state and is also suffering from ISIL terrorism,” he said in a telephone interview with Reuters. “ISIL is present in the shared area between us, and this points to the possibility of conditions arising that would pave the way for joint actions against Daesh,” he said.

The SDF, which the Kurdish YPG militia spearheads, has been the main partner of the US-led coalition against ISIL in Syria, helping drive the jihadists out of swathes of northern and eastern Syria last year. But its operations against ISIL have been sidetracked since Turkey, backed by allied Syrian insurgents, mounted an invasion in northwestern Syria targeting the YPG-controlled Afrin region of the northwest. The SDF sent fighters to Afrin from other areas, and the US-led coalition has said this resulted in limited offensive operations against ISIL.

Turkey and its Syrian militia allies captured Afrin town last month, leading the YPG to declare a new phase of guerrilla war in the northwest. Xelil said the shift in tactics away from direct confrontation meant fewer fighters were needed in the northwest. “The number has reduced a lot,” he said. “The surplus number will head to the other areas to strengthen the defence of these areas,” against ISIL and “any other threat”.

“After Afrin, ISIL has revived and has started to expand in the region, and has benefited a lot from the vacuum,” Xelil said. “This is a danger we are thinking about, and we are tying to fine the appropriate means to take measures against the expansion of ISIL,” he said.

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