ISTANBUL (AP) – Turkey said Tuesday it is working with the United States to coordinate the withdrawal of American forces but remains “determined” to clear U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters from northeastern Syria.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters that “if Turkey says it will enter, it will,” in comments carried by private DHA news agency. His comments came amid reports that Turkey-backed Syrian rebels are getting ready to begin a military operation in and near the northern town of Manbij that is controlled by Kurdish-led fighters.
For weeks, Turkey has been threatening to launch a new offensive against the Kurdish fighters, who partnered with the U.S. to drive the Islamic State group out of much of northern and eastern Syria. Ankara views the Kurdish forces as terrorists because of their links to an insurgent group inside Turkey.
President Donald Trump announced the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this month.
The minister also said Ankara and Washington have agreed to complete a roadmap on Manbij until the U.S. withdraws. Under the June deal, Kurdish forces would leave Manbij, in the western Euphrates valley, but delays have infuriated Turkey.
Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters have been moving to the outskirts of Manbij and the Turkish army continued to dispatch tanks, artillery and other equipment to the border and an area administered by Turkey in northern Syria, according to Turkish media reports.
Maj. Youssef Hammoud, of the Turkey-backed Syrian rebels known as the National Army, said the military operation against Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria is “near but has not started yet.”
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said Turkey has ordered rebels it backs to begin a military operation in Manbij “in the coming hours.”
“It is crucial that the U.S. doesn’t appear as not having kept its promises,” Cavusoglu said.
He argued that Turkey has the “strength to neutralize” IS on its own and criticized France, which has promised to stay in Syria despite the U.S. decision.
Cavusoglu warned it would not benefit France if it was staying in Syria to protect the YPG, the main Kurdish militia in Syria.
Erdogan, speaking to reporters in Ankara, said Turkey was taking into account Trump’s announcement on Syria rather than French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision. The future of the international coalition against IS, which includes Turkey, the U.S. and France, remains unclear.
The Turkish president also announced that a delegation was heading to Moscow and that he would meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Turkey has been negotiating on behalf of the Syrian opposition with Russia and Iran, which support the Syrian government, as part of efforts to end the nearly 8-year civil war.
Trump announced last week that the U.S. will withdraw all of its 2,000 forces in Syria, a move that will leave control of the oil-rich eastern third of Syria up for grabs. Russia launched its military operation in Syria in 2015 to back its longtime ally President Bashar Assad.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryakov said Tuesday in an interview with the RIA Novosti news agency that it would be a “big mistake” to dismantle a hotline that Russia and the U.S. use to prevent potential clashes in Syria, despite the U.S. withdrawal, and said he sees no indications the Americans would do that.
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