In setback for relations with US, Turkey denies truce with Kurdish-backed militia in Syria
Turkey on Wednesday denied agreeing to a US-brokered truce with Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria, saying it would not compromise with a “terrorist” group a week into an unprecedented cross-border offensive.
Washington said on Tuesday the two sides – both US allies – had agreed to a cessation of hostilities between their forces in Syria after deadly clashes at the weekend.
Also on Tuesday, the Islamic State (IS) group’s top strategist Abu Mohamed al-Adnani was killed in a US-led coalition air strike in Syria’s Aleppo province, in a major blow to the jihadists, the group said.
While Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies kept up the fight against IS, Ankara’s bombardments of Kurdish-backed positions appeared to have eased, with no reports of any such strikes since Monday.
Turkey however rejected Washington’s claim that it had agreed to hold fire on the pro-Kurdish coalition.
“We do not accept in any circumstances ... a ‘compromise or a ceasefire reached between Turkey and Kurdish elements,’” EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik told state-run Anadolu news agency.
“The Turkish republic is a sovereign, legitimate state,” Celik said, adding Turkey could not be put on an equal footing with a “terrorist organisation”, referring to the US-backed Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
After driving the Kurdish-backed fighters south away from the flashpoint border town of Jarabulus, the Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies on Tuesday fought IS jihadists to the town’s west, Turkish media said.
Three Turkish soldiers were injured in a rocket attack on a tank near Jarabulus, the reports said.
Turkish warplanes later carried out airstrikes against “terrorist” targets nearby, state-run Anadolu news agency said, referring to IS.
Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield on August 24 to clear the border area of jihadists and halt the westward advance of a US-backed Kurdish-led militia which Ankara considers a “terrorist” group.
After helping Syrian Arab rebels take Jarabulus from IS on the intervention’s very first day, Turkey began strikes against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a YPG-dominated coalition that has been leading the fight against IS.
US Central Command spokesman, Colonel John Thomas, said Tuesday that the Turkish and Kurdish-led forces had reached a “loose agreement” to stop fighting each other.
Kurdish-backed militias said they had agreed to the truce.
Washington had expressed alarm after a weekend of clashes between its Turkish and Kurdish allies.
Ankara said it killed 25 “terrorists” in strikes on pro-Kurdish positions on Sunday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least 40 dead and said the victims were mostly civilians.
Calling the escalation “unacceptable” the US urged the warring parties to stop fighting each other and concentrate on combatting IS.
Turkish media reported on Monday that Ankara summoned the US ambassador to protest the US criticism.
A spokesman for the Turkish foreign ministry, however, told AFP that there was only a “phone call” to Ambassador John Bass.
Turkey sees the YPG as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has waged a bloody war against the Turkish state since 1984.
In the past few months Turkey has watched in alarm as the Kurdish militia advanced west to fight IS, raising the prospect of a Kurdish-controlled corridor running nearly the entire length of Turkey’s border.
On Tuesday, Turkey again demanded guarantees from Washington on the group’s promise to the US to retreat east of the Euphrates river.
The US-led anti-IS coalition has been backing the YPG with training and equipment to fight the jihadists.
On Tuesday, Turkish forces and their rebel allies came under attack in IS-held territory to the west of Jarabulus, with the jihadists claiming in a statement to have destroyed two Turkish tanks in a missile attack.
The group also claimed to have carried out a suicide car bombing against Turkish-backed rebels in the same area and said it had killed “dozens” of Turkish soldiers and allied fighters.
Turkey’s offensive has raised concerns that Ankara could be drawn even deeper into the Syrian conflict.
Iran, a key backer of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, urged Turkey to quickly wrap up its campaign, saying it was a violation of Syrian sovereignty.
Turkey has said Syria was informed in advance of the operation by Russia.
“Although the fight against terrorism... is a principle for all peace-seeking governments, it cannot and must not justify military operations on another country’s territory without coordination with its central government,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said.