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Erdoğan says Turkish troops fighting terrorism in Syria will not withdraw

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President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has rejected prospects of the withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Syria, a precondition set by Damascus for the normalization of relations with Turkey, saying that the troops are fighting terrorism in the area, BBC Turkish service reported.

Erdoğan, who held a news conference in İstanbul on Monday ahead of a three-day visit to Gulf countries, said he is open to meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but does not welcome his precondition about the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syria.

“Unfortunately, he [Assad] wants Turkey to get out of northern Syria. This is impossible because we are fighting terrorism there,” said Erdoğan.

Assad said in March one day after he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is seeking to repair ties between Erdoğan and Assad that were severed after the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, that he will only meet with Erdoğan if Turkey withdraws troops from northern Syria.

Besides backing rebel forces, Turkey has over the past several years staged a series of military incursions into Syria, primarily to fight Kurdish groups it views as “terrorists.”

“[Any meeting] is linked to our reaching the point when Turkey is ready — fully and without any uncertainty — for a complete withdrawal from Syrian territory,” Assad told Russia’s state-run RIA-Novosti news agency.

“This is the only way in which my meeting with Erdoğan could take place,” Assad was cited as saying.

Erdoğan and Assad had amicable relations in the 2000s after years of tensions between their countries following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

But Syria’s civil war, which has left some 500,000 people dead and displaced millions, strained relations between Damascus and Ankara, which has long supported rebel groups opposed to Assad.

The Turkish leader called Assad a “murderer” in 2017, saying he should be brought to justice before an international tribunal.

But reversing course, Erdoğan this year said that a presidential summit could help “establish peace and stability in the region.”

Russia, which supports normalization with Turkey and Syria, in addition to hosting talks between the defense ministers of both countries, also hosted a summit in May between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, who held their first official meeting since the start of the Syrian civil war.

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