ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey is determined to cross to the east of the Euphrates river in northern Syria as soon as possible, Ankara’s foreign minister was quoted as saying on Tuesday, signaling renewed intent to launch a military campaign delayed by the U.S. withdrawal.
Turkey said this month it would launch a new military operation to sweep the YPG Kurdish militia from northern Syria, but put that on hold after the United States said it would pull its troops out.
Ankara regards the YPG as terrorists and has been infuriated by U.S. support for the group in the fight against Islamic State.
President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to pull troops out of Syria has handed the fight against Islamic State over to Turkey - and effectively given Ankara the green light to push into remaining Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria.
Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters at a briefing for domestic media that Turkey aimed to cross to the east of the Euphrates as soon as possible, the Hurriyet newspaper said, without giving further details.
Erdogan and Trump have agreed to coordinate to prevent a power vacuum from developing as the United States withdraws, Turkey has said. On Monday, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels reinforced the area around the town of Manbij, which is occupied by the Kurdish fighters, in preparation for the U.S. withdrawal.
The timing of that withdrawal has been unclear.
In June, Ankara and Washington reached an agreement that would see the YPG ousted from the town, but Turkey has repeatedly blamed the United States for what it says has been a delay in that deal.
Washington and Ankara have now agreed to complete their agreement on Manbij by the time the United States finishes its withdrawal, Cavusoglu also said, according to the state-owned Anadolu news agency.
Cavusoglu will travel to Russia to discuss the process of the U.S. withdrawal in the coming days, CNN Turk said.
Russia, the United States and Turkey are backers of warring sides in the Syrian conflict that erupted in 2011. Russia, alongside Iran, has propped up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey has backed various rebel groups. Washington, focused on the battle against Islamic State, backed the YPG.
Erdogan told reporters on Tuesday that he will probably meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the U.S. withdrawal. But the Kremlin said Putin did not have any immediate plans to meet with Erdogan.
Cavusoglu said Turkey also requested that the United States take back heavy weaponry it gave the YPG in its fight against Islamic State, Hurriyet reported.
Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow; Editing by David Dolan and Andrew Roche