Turkish gov’t adamant on targeting Syria’s Afrin as US changes tune over SDF forces

While Turkey’s National Security Council (MGK), top civil and military entity, said on Wednesday that it will take “immediate” and “resolute” steps to protect the nation from threats coming from western Syria, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that the US takes Turkey’s concerns regarding Syria “seriously” and said Ankara’s cooperation was necessary to secure a new future for the war-torn country in a speech at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution the same day.

“Necessary steps would be taken immediately and resolutely to defeat any threat against Turkey from western Syria in the first stage,” said a statement issued following the MGK meeting in Ankara. The statement added that necessary steps will be taken to secure the life and property of the local community, and strengthen Turkey’s border with Syria. “The establishment of a terror corridor and the formation of a terrorist army across the border will not be allowed,” it added.

The MGK has also rejected a US plan to establish a 30,000-strong border security force in Syria, manned by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). “It is regrettable that a state, which is part of NATO and our ally in bilateral relations, declares terrorists as its partner and provides them weapons, without any concern for our safety,” the statement added.

“Weapons, tools and materials given to the PYD (Democratic Union Party), PKK (outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and YPG (People’s Protection Units) must be collected without delay,” it said, adding that the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was completed on a large scale.

Following the council meeting, a cabinet meeting hold and lasted an hour. “Nobody should expect Turkey to be patient anymore,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said over the US arming of the YPG during a news conference after the cabinet meeting. He reiterated that Turkey is determined to take the necessary steps regarding the issue, adding that it faces threats at its border which “everybody is aware of.”

“Establishing a terror corridor in the region, supporting this establishment is unarguably an open threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity and border security, to the safety of life and property of our citizens and to national security,” Bozdağ said. He said Turkey has been very clear regarding the arming of terrorist groups and has used all diplomatic means to express its reservations on the issue. “The US did wrong by continuing to fight a terrorist organization using another terrorist organization,” he added.

“The provided weapons are not the weapons only to be used against the ISIL terrorist organization. ISIL does not have air forces. When you consider the aid, it includes weapons to be used against air forces,” Bozdağ stated.

The Syrian government on Thursday has warned Turkish government against launching a military operation in the northwestern region of Afrin, vowing that Syrian air defenses stood ready to defend against such an “act of aggression.” “We warn the Turkish leadership that if they initiate combat operations in the Afrin area, that will be considered an act of aggression by the Turkish army,” Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad said in comments reported by state media.

Syrian forces stand ready to take out any Turkish targets within the Syrian airfield, SANA reported, citing the deputy minister. “Syria will confront any Turkish aggression or military action against its territory with appropriate response,” Meqdad told reporters in a press briefing.

Any Turkish military operation into the Syrian borders will be considered as an attempt to attack and violate territorial integrity, Meqdad was quoted as saying. “If Turkish Air Forces aim to violate the Syrian air field or attack Syria, they should refrain from thinking they are out on a tour,” he reportedly said.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated on Wednesday that “The US hears and takes seriously the concerns of our NATO ally Turkey. We recognize the humanitarian contributions and military sacrifices Turkey has made towards defeating ISIL, towards their support of millions of Syrian refugees and stabilizing areas of Syria it has helped liberate. We must have Turkey’s close cooperation in achieving a new future for Syria that ensures security for Syria’s neighbors,” and added that “Any interim arrangements must be truly representative and must not threaten any of Syria’s neighboring states.”

Tillerson’s comments came after Turkish autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkey would destroy a border security force planned by the US in northern Syria. “America has admitted that it is setting up a terrorist army along our border. It is our duty to choke this terror army before it is born,” Erdoğan said during a meeting in Ankara.

The US-led Global Coalition To Defeat ISIL is working with its Syrian militia allies to set up a new border force of 30,000 to be deployed along the border with Turkey to the north, the Iraqi border to the southeast and along the Euphrates River Valley.

Calling on the US to terminate the plan, Erdoğan said that “Our message to our allies and friends is this: Do not stand between the terrorists and us. Do not stand between us and this herd of murderers. If not, we will not be responsible for unfortunate events. Get you flags down from the terrorist bases so that we are not forced to give those flags back to you. Get your insignias off the uniforms of terrorists so we are not forced to bury them with the terrorists.”

Erdoğan said on Saturday that Turkey would carry out a military operation in Syria’s Afrin and Manbij regions “if the terrorists do not pull out in one week.”

The Pentagon, however, said on Wednesday it was not creating a new army or a conventional border guard in Syria after Turkey reacted with outrage to US plans to train fighters including Syrian Kurds on internal security, Reuters reported. “The US continues to train local security forces in Syria. The training is designed to enhance security for displaced persons returning to their devastated communities,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “It is also essential so that ISIL cannot reemerge in liberated and ungoverned areas. This is not a new ‘army’ or conventional ‘border guard’ force,” it said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has said on Thursday that Turkey was not satisfied by US Secretary of State Tillerson’s statement that the US had no intention to build a Syria-Turkey border force, who said the issue was “misportrayed and misdescribed.” “The formation of a terrorist army along our border with Syria would cause irreversible damage to our ties with the US,” Çavuşoğlu said.

Speaking at pro-government Turkish broadcaster CNN Türk, Çavuşoğlu has also said that the US did not keep its promises on Manbij and Raqqa, adding that their mistrust toward the US was continuing. He said Turkey wants to see concrete steps from the US on ending cooperation with “terrorist groups.” Çavuşoğlu also said the Syrian government’s advance into Idlib needs to be stopped

He has also added that the YPG will not attend a meeting in Sochi, where a solution to the Syrian civil war will be sought.  Çavuşoğlu has urged Russia to not oppose a Turkish military operation in Syria’s Afrin, adding that they will coordinate with Moscow on the situation with Russian observers there. “We are also discussing with Russia and Iran about the use of airspace. We need to coordinate this for a possible aerial intervention. This needs to be coordinated well in order to prevent any accidents from happening,” he said. 

On Thursday, Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar headed to Russia for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Valery Gerasimov, state-run Anadolu Agency has reported. The meeting comes amid a possible Turkish military operation against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria’s Afrin region. The meeting in the capital Moscow will also include Hakan Fidan, head of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT), said a statement posted on the General Staff website.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, Gen. Akar and Fidan discussed the situation in the Middle East in a meeting in Moscow on Thursday. According to a Defense Ministry statement, the meeting was held in “a constructive manner” as Shoygu, Akar and Fidan discussed matters of common interest. Earlier on Thursday, the Turkish military had said in a statement that Akar and Fidan would meet Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimo to discuss Syria, including the Astana and Geneva peace initiatives, as well as regional security issues.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has also said on Thursday that the US’s policies on Syria are “against its alliance” with Turkey and statements coming from Washington are contradictory. “Over the last three days US officials have made statements that refute one another. One day it was said that a new border force had been set up, another day they said they are setting up a unit with local forces in order to maintain security in the region after eliminating ISIL in the region. These are all confusing statements.”

“Turkey’s stance is open and clear. It is impossible for us to allow any settlement of a terror army right on our border. All necessary measures that ensure the security of our citizens and borders will be taken without any hesitation,” he said and added that “US’ moves in Syria are unfortunately against the alliance. The US should eliminate the confusion about the future of the region.”

The Turkish Army (TSK) has also ordered its troops on the Syrian border in southern Turkey on Thursday to increase security measures to the “highest level” ahead of a possible military operation into Afrin. Following the MGK meeting, Turkish Armed Forces have retaliated to attacks made by the Kurdish militia in northern Syria in the early morning, state-run Anadolu Agency reported on Thursday, citing sources on the ground. The retaliation against the PYD/PKK was a move of self-defense, the agency reported.

As 9 tanks deployed to the Syria-Turkey border have recently reached their destinations in Hatay’s Kırıkhan and Hassa counties in the south on Thursday Turkey is making the final preparations for an attack on Afrin, but it was reported that there are still Russian troops on the ground, pro-government newspaper Habertürk said .

Military forces and artillery batteries belonging to the Turkish armed forces have been placed at seven key points along the border, Habertürk said, with four groups of Free Syrian Army forces preparing to enter from the other side. However, the newspaper said, diplomacy with Moscow is still ongoing, and whilst 61 Russian soldiers have retreated to their base, there are still 102 in the field. Seven entry points have been identified into the town, Habertürk said, and Turkey’s border walls had been removed at twelve points to allow the operation to proceed without obstacle.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish opposition says a military operation against Syrian Kurds will cause a massive reaction inside Turkey and will harm the government. Ayhan Bilgen, the spokesman of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was quoted by the Kurdish Mezopotamya news agency as saying that Turkish government’s plans for a military operation in northwestern Syrian province of Afrin have no grounding in security terms.

“What happens in Afrin does not threaten the Shias in Hatay, Sunnis in Urfa, or other peoples in Mardin and Antep,” Bilgen said and added what concerns President Erdoğan is what Afrin represents. “(Afrin) signifies that the Middle East can no longer be run by authoritarian one-man regimes… And you cannot destroy an alternative by mortar shells,” Bilgen was quoted as saying.

If Turkey wins the battle of Afrin, it will create a breaking point for Turkey’s Kurds and damage Erdoğan, Bilgen was quoted by Mezoptamya as saying. If it fails, Erdoğan will be held accountable again, he added. The only reasonable thing to do is to help build peace in Syria, the HDP’s spokesman said.

Turkey’s Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın, meanwhile, said on Thursday that steps by Turkey “for protecting its own national security in Afrin, Manbij, Jarabulus or in other places are definitely not a move against Syrian Kurds.”

The PYD has also called on the UN Security Council to intervene as Turkish forces prepare to assault Afrin. The PYD said that if the Security Council do not “act immediately” to prevent a Turkish attack, the world will bear the responsibility for civilian casualties, according to a report by the Washington Post on Tuesday.

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