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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 April 2019

Turkey says it will establish safe zone in northern Syria

Ankara and Washington are trying to dial down their harsh rhetoric after a public dispute over Syria

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks to MPs of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey. AP
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks to MPs of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey. AP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that Ankara will establish a 30-kilometre safe zone inside northern Syria following a "historic" agreement with his US peer Donald Trump.

Mr Erdogan's speech to parliament comes one day after he spoke with Mr Trump over the phone, in what seemed an effort to douse tensions after the American leader threatened Ankara with economic ruin if it attacked Kurdish groups in Syria.

The Turkish leader said he held a "quite positive" telephone conversation with Mr Trump late on Monday, where he reaffirmed that "a 20-mile (30km) security zone along the Syrian border... will be set up by us."

Since early in the conflict, Ankara has called for a safe area backed up by a no-fly zone on its border with Syria to protect civilians from air and ground attacks.

But the support for the proposal has waned ever since.

Mr Erdogan on Tuesday said that the plan could be revived if Washington provides logistics and financial support.

"We could create such a safe zone if coalition forces especially America provide logistical and financial support," Mr Erdogan said.

"That would also entirely prevent an influx (of refugees)."

The Turkish leader dismissed any presence of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia in that zone.

Commenting on Mr Trump's tweet on Sunday that the US would "devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds", Mr Erdogan said the remark "saddened me and my friends", but added that the two leaders reached an agreement during Monday's phone conversation.

"We have reached an agreement of understanding that is of historic importance," he said.

Mr Erdogan said Turkey would solve issues with a "spirit of alliance" with Mr Trump as long as his country's sensitivities were taken into account.

Mr Trump on Monday said that he spoke to Mr Erdogan to advise him on where the US stands on issues including battles against ISIS, the establishment of a 30-km safe zone and economic development between the US and Turkey.

However, the American president stuck to his emphasis on protecting Washington's Kurdish partners in the battles against ISIS, despite Mr Erdogan's known objection to such protection guarantees.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement after the call that "the president expressed the desire to work together to address Turkey’s security concerns in northeast Syria while stressing the importance to the United States that Turkey does not mistreat the Kurds and other Syrian Democratic Forces with whom we have fought to defeat ISIS."

Mr Trump gave no details about the safe zone proposal, but members of his administration said that Washington wanted to provide security for those who have fought ISIS and to prevent any attack on Turkey from Syria.

"If we can get the space and the security arrangements right it would be a good thing for everyone in the region," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Saturday, while on a tour of the Middle East.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday that Ankara was not against the idea of a secure zone along the border.

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Tensions between Ankara and Washington have soured over threats by Mr Erdogan to attack territory controlled by US-backed Kurdish groups in Syria.

Turkey views the YPG – Washington’s primary partner in the battle against ISIS in Syria– as a terrorist group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist organisation by both Turkey and the US.

Mr Erdogan has signalled that a cross-border operation against the YPG in northeastern Syria will happen soon. Ankara has carried out two military campaigns in northern Syria against ISIS and the YPG since 2016.

Earlier on Sunday, Mr Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin addressed Mr Trump on Twitter saying that “terrorists can’t be your partners & allies. Turkey expects the US to honour our strategic partnership and doesn’t want it to be shadowed by terrorist propaganda.”

Updated: January 15, 2019 05:19 PM

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