Turkish gov’t and US seeking a ‘common ground’ on Syria with intensive talks

Turkish government, led by autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and US administration have been seeking a “common ground” on the developments in the northern Syria with intensive talks on Thursday.

President Erdoğan conveyed his priorities and expectations from the US on bilateral ties and regional developments on Syria and other regional issues as well as the fight against terror to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in an over three-hour meeting in Ankara on Thursday, a Turkish presidential source said.

Meanwhile, Tillerson and Erdoğan had a “productive, open conversation” about a mutually beneficial way to improve US-Turkey relations, a US State Department spokesman travelling with Tillerson said.  The meeting, which was closed to the media, started at 7:40 p.m. and lasted for three hours and 15 minutes.

Tillerson is on a two-day working visit to Turkey. He is expected to meet his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Friday to discuss bilateral relations, particularly the US support for the PYD/PKK, and international developments.

Tillerson had said on Wednesday that “We hope to have talks about how we can work cooperatively to lessen those threats to Turkey but ultimately achieve the objective in Syria,” Tillerson said at a joint press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi in Amman, Jordan. Turkey is “an important NATO ally and partner in the region”, according to Tillerson, who said it faces threats within its border as well as from areas in Iraq and Syria.

Tillerson also noted Washington and Ankara are committed to the “same outcomes” in Syria, including the defeat of ISIL, the de-escalation of violence there and moving the Geneva peace talks forward. The UN-backed international peace conference is aimed at ending the Syrian civil war by bringing together the Syrian government and opposition to discuss steps toward a transitional government.

“I think what will benefit Turkey the most will be a successful peace process in Geneva that stabilizes all of Syria,” Tillerson added. But just a day earlier in Kuwait, Tillerson sounded a different tone when he said Turkey’s military operation to remove terror groups in Afrin is hampering the US-led coalition’s efforts to maintain the focus on the fight against ISIL in Syria.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Thursday said that the US and Turkey, NATO allies, would press on with their collaboration over Syria despite their areas of difference. “I believe we are finding common ground and there are areas of uncommon ground, where sometimes war just gives you bad alternatives to choose from,” Mattis told reporters on the sidelines of a NATO meeting. He met his Turkish counterpart Nurettin Canikli on Wednesday.

“But throughout this, the one that has marked our communication is absolute honesty and transparency with one another… We continue to collaborate on ways to ensure their legitimate concerns are addressed,” Mattis added.

A US statement said Mattis had urged Turkey to keep attention on fighting ISIL: “He called for a renewed focus on the campaign to defeat ISIL, and to preventing any vestige of the terrorist organization from reconstituting in Syria,” it said.

ISIL militants were driven last year from all the population centers they occupied in both Syria and Iraq, but Washington still considers them a threat, capable of carrying out an insurgency and plotting attacks elsewhere.

Canikli has also said on Thursday that he had told Mattis that the Syrian Kurdish YPG should be removed from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the militia that Washington is backing in the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Canikli, in a briefing to reporters in Brussels after meeting with Mattis, also said he disputed Mattis’ characterization of the SDF as dominated by Arabs, saying the militia was completely controlled by the YPG. “Mattis said the SDF is largely controlled by Arab elements. We said on the contrary, the SDF is completely controlled by the PYD and YPG,” he said in comments broadcast live on television. “The other elements are for show only.”

According to a report by Reuters on Thursday, Turkish government said it had demanded that the United States expel a Kurdish militia from the ground forces it backs in Syria, underscoring the widening gulf between the NATO allies since Ankara launched a new Syrian offensive last month.

Ties between Turkey and the United States, both allies in a US-led coalition fighting against ISIL, have been strained to the breaking point by Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara sees as “terrorists.” The issue has been expected to dominate a visit to Turkey by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday and Friday at a time when relations between Washington and Ankara are fraying over a range of other issues as well.

“We demanded this relationship be ended, I mean we want them to end all the support given to the Syrian arm of PKK, the YPG,” Canikli told reporters in a briefing in Brussels. “We demanded this structure be removed from SDF,” he said. Canikli also said that Mattis had told him the United States was working on a plan to retrieve weapons given to the YPG, especially heavy weapons.

However, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday the US had “never given heavy arms” to the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and there was therefore “nothing to take back.” Tillerson also said the United States has had “fruitful meetings” with Europeans on the Iran nuclear deal, but said work on this issue was not yet over.

Meanwhile, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ  said on Thursday that the US should stop trying to change Turkish government’s stance on the PYD/YPG in Syria. In remarks made to pro-government broadcaster TV24, Bozdağ talked on the issues expected to be discussed during the visit of Tillerson to Turkey.

“The US should stop trying to convince us to see another reality. We do not need to be convinced on this issue. Because the reality is clear,” he said. Bozdağ stated that if the US respected Turkish government’s views on the terror group, it would rectify its mistakes and stop repeating them.

Bozdağ termed the US support for PYD/PKK as “the biggest mistake” and urged Turkey’s NATO ally to cut off its support to the terror group and take back arms that it supplied to them. About the possibility of Turkish soldiers and the US troops coming face-to-face in Syria’s Manbij, he said he would not assume that any such encounter would take place.

In a statement, Turkish General Staff said on Thursday that a total of 1,528 PYD/PKK and alleged ISIL militants have been “neutralized” since the beginning of Operation Olive Branch in Afrin. Turkish authorities often use the word “neutralized” in their statements to imply the terrorists in question either surrendered or were killed or captured. The statement has added that the military’s overnight airstrikes “neutralized” 43 PYD/PKK and alleged ISIL militants.

Also on Thursday, the Turkish military has reportedly set up the sixth observation post in northern Syria’s Idlib province as part of a de-escalation deal which it agreed with Iran and Russia. The military stated that the observation post was built in the Surman region at the southeast of Idlib, the deepest position Turkey’s armed forces have established so far inside northwest Syria.

Under the deal reached with Tehran and Moscow to try to reduce fighting between pro-government forces and mainly Islamist insurgents in the northwest Syria, Turkey agreed to set up 12 observation posts in Idlib and neighboring provinces. That deal largely collapsed in December when the Syrian army along with Iran-backed militias and heavy Russian air power launched a major offensive to take territory in Idlib province and surrounding areas.

Turkey, which supported rebels trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has worked with Assad’s main international backers Russia and Iran in recent months to try to stem some of the bloodshed in Syria’s nearly seven-year-old civil war.

According to a report by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, Turkish military and Free Syrian Army (FSA) on Thursday captured six more villages in northwestern Syria from the control of PYD/PKK terrorists. The village of Kharab Summak in Rajo town was now at the hands of Turkish military. Earlier Thursday, the villages of Diwan Al Fawqani, Karri, Sharbanli and Shadia, located northwest of the town of Rajo were captured from PYD/PKK  during ongoing Operation Olive Branch. Additionally, Duraklı village, located in Bülbül town in northern Afrin, was also captured earlier Thursday.

On the other hand, according to pro-Kurdish news sources, Turkish military operation has resulted in the destruction of 27 school buildings and the death of 13 students in Afrin, where there are a total of 318 schools, and some 50.000 students from elementary to university levels. Afrin’s local administration has had to pause all school activity due to the casualties.

Afrin Ministry of Education Committee Co-chair Mihemed Reşit announced that the attacks have destroyed schools in Shiye, Rajo and Shera in particular and that they are trying to protect the students from the intense attacks.

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