By Ece Toksabay
ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar met military officials on Thursday to discuss a possible offensive east of the Euphrates River in Syria as Ankara ramped up warnings of a cross-border operation.
The meeting came a day after Turkey said it would launch an offensive unless agreement on a planned safe zone in Syria could be reached with the United States, saying it had run “out of patience” with Washington.
The operation, which would mark the third Turkish incursion into Syria in as many years, was first signalled by President Tayyip Erdogan earlier this year but later put on hold.
Following President Donald Trump’s announcement of a planned U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria, the two NATO allies agreed to create a zone inside Syria and along its northeastern border with Turkey that would be cleared of the Kurdish YPG militia.
The YPG was Washington’s main ally on the ground in Syria during the battle against Islamic State, but Turkey sees it as a terrorist organisation, indistinguishable from Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey.
Ankara says that the United States has stalled progress on setting up the safe zone and has demanded that Washington sever its relations with the YPG.
A U.S. delegation led by Syria Special Envoy James Jeffrey presented proposals this week which failed to satisfy Turkish officials, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.
On Thursday Akar told Turkish military officers that Ankara had set out its view to the U.S. delegation. “We emphasised to them once again that we have no tolerance for any delays, and that we will use our initiative if necessary,” the Defence Ministry quoted Akar as saying.
In Washington, the Pentagon reiterated that coordination and consultation between the United States and Turkey was the only way to address security concerns.
“We have made clear that unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as U.S. personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern,” Commander Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
“We would find any such actions unacceptable,” Robertson said.
Earlier on Thursday, Turkish military officials said that Ankara and Washington would continue to discuss the planned safe zone despite rising tensions between the allies.
“We cannot share details as efforts are under way. Our aims are clear. The Turkish army is the only force capable of doing this,” one of the officials said regarding the safe zone.
He reiterated Turkey’s frustration that an agreement reached a year ago with the United States to clear the northern Syrian town of Manbij of YPG fighters had not been implemented.
“Despite all our work, the end-goal of the Manbij roadmap, which is for the area to be cleared of the YPG, for heavy arms to be collected, and a local administration to be formed, has not been reached. There are still around 1,000 terrorists in the region,” the official said, referring to the YPG.
Ties between Ankara and Washington have been strained over a host of issues, but Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems has brought the NATO allies to the brink of one of the biggest ruptures in ties.
The United States said it had suspended Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 fighter jet programme over the Russian systems and that it would later remove Ankara completely. It has also said that Turkey may face possible U.S. sanctions over the deal.
Turkey has dismissed the warnings, instead pinning its hopes on sympathetic comments from Trump who has said that Ankara had been treated unfairly. Trump has not ruled out imposing sanctions on Turkey.
On Thursday, military officials said that while Russia had offered to provide Turkey with its SU-35 jets if Ankara asked for them, there were no talks to procure alternatives to the F-35s. Akar, however, said that Turkey would look elsewhere if it was denied the jets.
(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen and Tuvan Gumrukcu and Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, Mark Heinrich and Cynthia Osterman)