President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey would press on with its offensive into Syria and “crush the heads of terrorists” if a deal with Washington on withdrawal of Kurdish fighters was not fully implemented.
Erdogan agreed in talks with US Vice President Mike Pence a five-day pause in the offensive to allow time for Kurdish fighters to withdraw from a “safe zone” Turkey aims to establish in northeast Syria near the Turkish border.
On Saturday the fragile truce was holding, with a few Turkish military vehicles crossing the border, Reuters journalists at the scene said. In the last 36 hours, there were 14 “provocative attacks” from Syria, Turkey’s defence ministry said, adding it was continuing to co-ordinate with Washington on implementation of the accord.
If the agreement with the US, a NATO ally, for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia to withdraw falters, Turkey will continue its military operation, Erdogan said.
“If it works, it works. If not, we will continue to crush the heads of the terrorists the minute the 120 hours of the ceasefire are over,” Erdogan told flag-waving supporters in the central Turkish province of Kayseri.
“If the promises made to us are not kept, we will not wait like before and will continue the operation where it left off once the time has run out,” he said.
Ankara regards the YPG, the main component of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as a terrorist group because of links to Kurdish insurgents in south-east Turkey.
On Friday, the Kurdish militia accused Turkey of violating the five-day pause by shelling civilian areas in the northeast and the border town Ras al Ain.
A senior Turkish official called the accusations an attempt to sabotage the agreement between Ankara and Washington, adding Turkey was fully behind the deal.
“Turkey is 100% behind the deal. We have everything we wanted at the negotiating table,” the official said. “It’s bizarre to think we’d violate an agreement we like,” the official added.
The surprise deal to suspend Turkey’s military offensive hinged on Erdogan’s demand Washington agree on a time limit for any ceasefire, a senior Turkish official told Reuters.
The deal aims to stem a humanitarian crisis, which displaced 200 000 civilians in the region and ease a security scare over thousands of Islamic State captives guarded by the YPG, who the Turkish assault targets.
The planned safe zone would go 32 km into Syria. Erdogan said. It would run for some 440 km from west to east, though the US special envoy for Syria said the accord covered a smaller area where Turkish forces and Syrian rebel allies were fighting.
Erdogan also said Turkey would set up a dozen observation posts across northeast Syria and he would hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on what steps to take in the planned “safe zone” next week.
EMERGENCY TALKS IN SOCHI
The truce aims to ease a crisis triggered by President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria, a move criticised in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of loyal Kurdish allies who fought for years alongside US troops against Islamic State.
Trump defended his decision as “strategically brilliant” and said the truce with Turkey would save millions of lives. Trump later said he had a phone call with Erdogan and the Turkish leader “wants the ceasefire, or pause, to work”.
Trump’s move also means the extent of Turkey’s ambitions in the region is likely to be determined by Russia and Iran, who both support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and look to fill the vacuum created by the US retreat.
Assad deployed forces in territory formerly protected by Washington, invited by the Kurds. Erdogan, who backed rebels fighting to oust Assad, said Turkey has no problem with Syrian government forces deploying near the border.
Erdogan said on Saturday he would discuss the Syrian deployment in northern Syria in planned talks with Putin during a visit to Sochi on Tuesday.
“In certain parts of our operation area, Assad regime forces under Russian protection are situated. We will discuss this issue. We need to find a solution,” Erdogan said.
“The same is valid. If it works, it works. If not, then we continue to implement our own plans,” he said, without elaborating.
Erdogan and Putin forged close ties over defence and energy co-operation, as well as efforts to find a political solution in Syria, Moscow said the Turkish offensive into Syria was “unacceptable” and should be limited.
On Friday, Russian officials discussed with Assad in Damascus the need to de-escalate the situation in north-east Syria.