Turkey sees US deal on Syria safe zone as start of purging Kurdish militia: report

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Turkey sees its deal with the US to carve out a narrow security zone in northern Syria as just the beginning, two Turkish officials told Bloomberg, with Ankara determined to purge Kurdish fighters from a much larger section of the border region.

After weeks of difficult negotiations, the NATO allies agreed this month to jointly patrol an area stretching 125 kilometers between the Syrian towns of Tal Abyad and Ras Al Ayn, and up to 15 kilometers deep, said officials who have direct knowledge of the talks but asked not to be identified in line with regulations barring them from talking to the media.

While the agreement should allow Turkey’s military to move into northeast Syria without firing a shot, the country could unleash a unilateral incursion if the zone isn’t deepened and extended by as much as several hundred kilometers at a later date, they said.

Turkey has deployed 10 brigades along its frontier between the Euphrates River and the Iraqi border to confront an estimated 15,000 members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the officials added.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has declared the YPG — which took control of areas of northern Syria as security collapsed during that country’s civil war — a mortal enemy. That is because of its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), another separatist movement that Turkey has been fighting for more than three decades and is considered a terrorist organization by the US and the European Union.

Erdoğan’s desire to force the militia away from Turkey’s frontier is complicated by the presence of US troops originally stationed in the region to aid the YPG in their joint fight against now largely vanquished Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The Turkish-US agreement foresees the immediate withdrawal of YPG fighters from the buffer zone, with the US collecting heavy weapons it had supplied to the group, the officials said. Fortified Kurdish positions and tunnels were to be destroyed, they said. Turkey wants members of the YPG’s political wing to leave the area as well.

The deal allows for Turkish armed drones to start surveillance flights over the zone, but the US hasn’t agreed to overflights by Turkish warplanes, the officials said. The US also opposes Turkey’s proposal to move Ankara-backed rebels of the Free Syrian Army to the area, but did agree that refugees living in Turkey could return, they said.

Turkish demands to be able to deploy as many troops as it considers necessary to enforce security were rebuffed, with the US agreeing only to the deployment of two Turkish soldiers for every American soldier, they added.

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