Erdogan defies Syrian Army presence in proposed ‘safe zone’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to extend his military operation in northern Syria into regime-held areas if he and Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot strike a deal when they meet on Tuesday.

Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring last week with the aim of pushing Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) south of the border and establishing a “safe zone” that could accommodate as many as two million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey. The focus of the initial phase of the operation has been around the border towns of Sari Kani (Ras al-Ain) and Gire Spi (Tal Abyad).

The SDF reached a deal with the regime in Damascus for regime forces to deploy to the border areas, apart from the two towns where clashes were ongoing. The United States then brokered a temporary truce between Turkey and the SDF that gives the SDF five days to pull out of Sari Kani and Gire Spi, hand over their heavy weapons, and move southward some 32 kilometres to the M4 highway, after which Turkey would commit to a full ceasefire. The precise details of the agreement are disputed.

Speaking at an event in Kayseri, central Turkey on Saturday, Erdogan implied he was not happy with the arrangement that brings the Syrian Arab Army to the Turkish border.

“There are the [Syrian] regime forces – which are protected by Russia – in a part of the operation’s geography. I will discuss this issue with Mr. Putin on Tuesday because we have to find a solution,” he said.

A solution “has to happen. If not, we will continue with our own plans,” he said. The ultimate goal of Turkey’s operation is for the safe zone to stretch 440 kilometres from the Euphrates River to Iraq.

The five-day ceasefire will expire on Tuesday, coinciding with Erdogan’s visit to Russia.

“On Tuesday, inshallah I will be in Russia’s Sochi. I will talk about these [things] with Putin as well. Then we will continue our path,” Erdogan said. Ankara has backed Syrian opposition groups against the government of Bashar al-Assad. Turkey is hosting about 3.6 million refugees who have fled Syria since the conflict began in 2011.

Regime forces have been deployed to areas around Kobane, Tal Tamir, Manbij, and Raqqa though only the first two lie within Turkey’s proposed safe zone.