AKCAKALE, Turkey: Armed Turkish military vehicles crossed into war-stricken Syria yesterday to begin joint patrols with US counterparts to establish a high-stakes “safe zone” along a border region controlled by Kurdish forces.
Vehicles with Turkish flags joined those in Syria with US flags some 15km east of the Turkish border town of Akcakale, near Syria’s Tel Abyad. With two military helicopters briefly overhead, they headed south for several hours before returning to Turkey.
The land patrol, which Damascus condemned, marks the latest sign of co-operation between the Nato allies east of the Euphrates even while thorny questions remain over the size and oversight of the safe zone.
Underscoring frayed trust between the Nato allies after sometimes conflicting roles in Syria’s eight-year war, President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey does not share many of Washington’s aims and rejects its protection of “terrorist” organisations in the zone.
Erdogan is anxious to push back from Turkey’s borders the Kurdish YPG forces which, with US backing over the last four years, have taken control of much of northeastern Syria from Islamic State militants.
Ankara has labelled the YPG terrorists and says they have links to Kurdish militants in Turkey. Turkey also aims to send one million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it hosts to a broader safe zone in northern Syria.
“We are negotiating with the US for the safe zone, but we see at every step that what we want and what they have in mind is not the same thing,” Erdogan told supporters in Malatya just hours after the first patrol ended.
“It seems that our ally is looking for a safe zone for the terrorist organisation, not for us. We reject such understanding,” he said, adding Turkey must secure “the entire region” to resettle refugees.
Arab tribes mainly inhabit the proposed safe zone region controlled by the YPG forces. On Sunday, witnesses said residents in some of the villages emerged to greet and wave at Turkish troops on the joint patrol.
After intensive negotiations, Turkey and the US have also set up a joint operation centre and conducted joint helicopter patrols. But they have so far disagreed over how deep the zone would extend into Syria and over the command structure of the forces to operate there.