SOCHI, Russia (AFP) — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday threatened to resume Turkey’s military offensive in Syria “with greater determination” unless the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters is completed under a U.S.-brokered deal, as he headed to talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Erdogan was to with Putin hours before a deadline for Kurdish fighters to withdraw from Syrian border areas or face a renewed Turkish assault.
Russia, a crucial ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has demanded that Turkey respect the country’s territorial integrity and Putin will likely seek such commitments from Erdogan.
“We will have the opportunity to discuss steps to end (Kurdish fighters’) presence in regime-held areas,” Erdogan told reporters at an Ankara airport before departing for the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi for his meeting with Putin.
Russia and Turkey have emerged as the main foreign players in Syria’s conflict, with Moscow’s position strengthened after President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw American forces from the north of the country.
The announcement cleared the way for Turkey to launch a cross-border offensive on Oct. 9 against the Kurdish YPG militia, who were key in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria but are viewed by Ankara as “terrorists” linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Russian forces moved in to replace U.S. troops last week in support of the Syrian army, whose help was requested by the Kurds.
Erdogan said last week he was not bothered by the Damascus regime’s return, as what mattered to Ankara was pushing back the Kurdish fighters from the proposed 20-miles deep safe zone.
“The most important thing for us is achieving long-term stability in Syria and the region,” Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov told reporters before the talks.
“We believe this can only be achieved by restoring the unity of Syria.”
Despite being on the opposite sides of the Syria conflict, Turkey and Russia are working together to find a solution to the war. Erdogan said he would also discuss the situation in Idlib during a meeting with Putin.
Assad said Tuesday that defeating jihadists in the northwestern region of Idlib is the key to ending the country’s eight-year-old civil war.
“The battle of Idlib is the basis for resolving chaos and terrorism in all other areas of Syria,” he said while visiting troops on the front line with jihadists in the town of Al-Hbeit in Idlib province, according to the president’s office on its social media networks.
After a deal with Vice President Mike Pence last week, Turkey announced a 120-hour ceasefire during which Kurdish fighters were to withdraw from the border zone.
“If the promises given to our country by the United States are not kept, we will continue our operation from where we left off with greater determination,” Erdogan warned Tuesday.
Erdogan also confirmed the withdrawal of some Kurdish fighters from the zone he wants to run from Jarabulus in northwestern Syria up to the Iraqi border.
“Around 700-800 have withdrawn so far,” Erdogan said, adding that the remaining 1,200-1,300 would reportedly also be pulling out.
“We are pursuing it. The process will not be over without a full withdrawal,” he said.
On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron told Putin that France wanted to see an extension of the ceasefire by Turkey in northeast Syria but Erdogan firmly rejected this on Tuesday.
“There is no such proposal that was conveyed to me from Macron. Macron is in fact talking about such things mostly with terrorists,” Erdogan said, referring to a meeting between Jihane Ahmed, the spokeswoman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces , and the French leader.
“He preferred to communicate the terrorists’ offer to us. France is not our interlocutor,” Erdogan said, adding that Turkey was in touch with the United States over Syria.
Ankara says the YPG is a “terrorist” offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984.
The PKK is blacklisted as a terror group by Ankara, the United States and the EU.
Erdogan also expressed his unease with some Iranian opposition to the Turkish offensive in Syria, adding that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “should have silenced those voices”.
“This bothers me and my colleagues,” Erdogan said.
Referring to a planned meeting with Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Erdogan said it could take place before or after the NATO summit on December 3-4 near London.
© Agence France-Presse