Turkey will not let Syria safe zone agreement be delayed: foreign minister

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey will not let plans for safe zone in northeast Syria to stall over negotiations with the United States, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday, a day after Washington and Ankara announced plans for a joint headquarters but offered few details.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, August 8, 2019. Cem Ozdel/Turkish Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

Washington and Ankara have been at odds over plans for northeastern Syria, where U.S. allies on the ground in the battle against Islamic State include a Kurdish militia that Turkey considers an enemy and a terrorist group.

The NATO allies have been discussing a safe zone near the Turkish frontier that would be kept free of fighters and heavy weapons, but Turkey wants it to extend more than twice as far into Syria as the United States has proposed.

Turkey has suggested it will act militarily if the United States fails to agree a solution that will safeguard the border.

Three days of talks between military delegations ended on Wednesday with the announcement that Washington and Ankara would set up a joint operation center in Turkey to coordinate and manage the safe zone. But no agreement has been announced on key details, including the size of the zone and the command structure of joint patrols that would be conducted there.

Cavusoglu compared the negotiations to an earlier agreement with Washington intended to remove Kurdish YPG militia fighters from the northern Syrian city of Manbij. Ankara has repeatedly accused Washington of stalling over the implementation of that agreement, known as the Manbij roadmap.

“We will not allow these efforts (on the safe zone) to turn into the Manbij roadmap,” Cavusoglu told a news conference in Ankara.

He said he and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo drew up the roadmap in June last year, and that it was supposed to be executed within 90 days, “but the United States delayed this with many excuses, such as joint patrols”.

The safe zone was proposed last year by U.S. President Donald Trump, who had announced plans to withdraw U.S. special forces from northern Syria but later delayed the withdrawal to ensure Washington’s Kurdish allies would be protected.

Ankara has repeatedly expressed its frustration with the slow progress over Manbij. In the past month, officials have also expressed impatience over talks with the United States regarding the safe zone.

Washington has proposed a 5-kilometer (3-mile) demilitarized strip and an additional 9 km (5.6 miles) cleared of heavy weapons. Turkey wants the zone to extend at least twice as far.

“A safe zone that stretches 30-35 kilometers deep in northern Syria will not only provide the security of Turkey, but also the region,” Devlet Bahceli, leader of Turkey’s nationalist party and a parliamentary ally of President Tayyip Erdogan, said on Thursday.

“We cannot act according to the United States, we have to abide by the words of our nation.”

The Syrian government said on Thursday that the U.S.-Turkish agreement represented a “blatant attack” on Syria’s sovereignty and territorial unity and a “dangerous escalation”.

Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen and Ece Toksabay; Writing by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, Dominic Evans and Peter Graff