Erdogan says U.S. not fulfilling Syria deal ahead of Trump talks

Erdogan says U.S. not fulfilling Syria deal ahead of Trump talks
By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday the United States was not fulfilling its pledge to remove a Kurdish militia from a Syrian border region and he will raise the issue when he meets President Donald Trump next week.

A month ago, Turkey launched a cross-border offensive with Syrian rebels against Kurdish YPG fighters. After seizing control of a 120-km (75-mile) swathe of territory, it reached a deal with the United States to keep them out of that area.

Erdogan is set to discuss implementation of the agreement with Trump in Washington on Nov. 13, after confirming that the visit would go ahead following a phone call between the leaders overnight.

“While we hold these talks, those who promised us that the YPG…would withdraw from here within 120 hours have not achieved this,” he told a news conference, referring to a deadline set in last month’s agreement.

Turkish officials had previously said Erdogan might call off the U.S. visit in protest at U.S. House of Representatives’ votes to recognize mass killings of Armenians a century ago as genocide and to seek sanctions on Turkey.

After the deal with Washington, Ankara also reached an agreement with Moscow under which the YPG was to withdraw to a depth of 30 km along the entirety of the northeastern Syrian border with Turkey.

But Erdogan said this deal had also not been fulfilled, with YPG fighters still in the border strip, adding that he would hold talks with Putin soon on the issue.

A senior U.S. State Department official said late on Wednesday there has been fighting in the area southeast of Syria’s border town of Ras al-Ain. It “is somewhat in dispute” whether the area is covered by the U.S. or Russian deals.

“The YPG and all armed forces have certainly withdrawn from the vast majority of our area,” the official said. “Erdogan is never all that specific in his broadside attacks on us or anybody else.”

CLASHES IN SYRIA

Speaking to reporters before a visit to Hungary, Erdogan said clashes in Syria were continuing, with 11 fighters from the Turkey-backed rebel Syrian National Army (SNA) killed on Thursday.

“These terrorists are attacking the SNA, and the SNA is retaliating in kind. There are 11 martyrs from the SNA this morning. Many more were killed on the other side,” he said.

Under the two bilateral deals, Ankara stopped its offensive in return for the withdrawal of the YPG fighters. Turkish and Russian soldiers have so far held two joint patrols near the border to monitor implementation of their agreement.

Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist group because of its ties to militants who have fought an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984. U.S. support for the YPG, which was a main ally in the fight against Islamic State, has infuriated Turkey.

Ankara began its offensive against the YPG after Trump announced an abrupt withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria in early October. The U.S. president has since said that some troops will continue to operate there.

Late on Wednesday, the commander of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces said the group was resuming work with the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria.

“As a result of a series of meetings with Coalition leaders, #SDF is resuming its joint program of work with the Coalition to combat #ISIS and securing the infrastructure of NE #Syria,” Mazloum Kobani wrote on Twitter.

Turkish sources say Trump and Erdogan have a strong bond despite anger in Congress over Turkey’s Syria offensive and its purchase of Russian air defenses, and despite what Ankara sees as the U.S. president’s own erratic pronouncements.

Those personal ties could prove crucial, given NATO member Turkey’s purchase of Moscow’s S-400 missile defense system, which under U.S. law should trigger sanctions.

Turkey has already been suspended from the F-35 fighter jet program in which it was both joint producer and customer, and the offensive it launched against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria on Oct. 9 set the stage for further U.S. retaliation.

Unal Cevikoz, deputy chair of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told Reuters that Erdogan will likely ask Trump to disarm the YPG forces and ensure they do not return to the border region.

“There is not a full harmony between the approaches of the United States and Turkey in the Syrian quagmire,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Jonathan Spicer in Turkey and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Russia says Kurdish fighters have left Syrian border area as deadline expires

Russia says Kurdish fighters have left Syrian border area as deadline expires
By Gabrielle T├ętrault-Farber and Tuvan Gumrukcu

MOSCOW/ANKARA (Reuters) – Syrian Kurdish fighters completed their withdrawal from a strip of land on the Syrian-Turkish border ahead of a Tuesday evening deadline agreed between Moscow and Ankara, Russia’s defense minister said.

A senior aide to Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara would now discover through planned joint patrols with Russia whether the Kurdish YPG forces had really pulled out of the area or not.

Under the accord clinched a week ago between the presidents of Turkey and Russia, Syrian border guards and Russian military police were meant to clear all YPG forces and their weapons from a 30 km (19 mile) band of territory south of the border by 6 pm local time (1500 GMT) on Tuesday.

“The withdrawal of (Kurdish) armed forces from the territory where a safety corridor is supposed to be created has been completed ahead of schedule,” TASS news agency quoted Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying.

“Both Syrian border guards and our military police have gone there,” he added.

The deal, clinched in the Russian Black Sea town of Sochi, reinforced an existing U.S.-brokered ceasefire that had halted Turkey’s offensive, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, in northeast Syria targeting the YPG, which Ankara views as a terrorist organization linked to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.

After the Tuesday evening deadline, Russian and Turkish forces are scheduled to start joint patrols of a narrower, 10 km strip of land on the Syrian side of the border.

A Russian delegation is currently in Turkey for talks on how those patrols will work and on the wider security situation in northeast Syria. Turkey’s defense ministry said the delegation held a second day of talks on Tuesday, without saying whether the two countries had yet agreed how to carry out the patrols.

“Turkey and Russia had set a 150-hour deadline for the YPG terrorists to leave the safe zone. The time is up. We will establish, through joint patrols, whether or not the terrorists have actually withdrawn,” said Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Earlier on Tuesday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar had complained that some Kurdish YPG forces remained in the area of the Turkish-Syrian border.

“This fight (against terrorism) is not over. We are aware that it will not end,” he also told the Sabah newspaper.

Asked about the joint patrols planned with Russian forces in the border area, Akar said: “The rules of engagement, (the question of) which vehicles are to be used, the authorities and directives are to be determined.”

Akar said there were still around 1,000 YPG fighters in the border town of Manbij and a further 1,000 in nearby Tel Rifat. The two towns are located to the west of the strip of territory that Turkey wants to turn into a “safe zone” but Syrian and Russian forces are also meant to clear them of YPG forces.

Turkey launched its offensive in northeast Syria after President Donald Trump said he was pulling 1,000 U.S. military personnel from the area. Turkey’s NATO allies, including the United States, have criticized Ankara’s actions, fearing it will undermine the fight against Islamic State.

The YPG is the main component in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been a key ally of the United States against the Islamic State militants.

Russia, a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad, has emerged as the key foreign power in Syria, its influence further bolstered by the withdrawal of U.S.

(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Turkey says it will take over fight against Islamic State after U.S. pull-out

FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a joint news conference with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani (not seen) after their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, December 20, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Ece Toksabay and Dahlia Nehme

ISTANBUL/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey will take over the fight against Islamic State militants in Syria as the United States withdraws its troops, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday, in the latest upheaval wrought by Washington’s abrupt policy shift.

The surprise announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump this week that he would withdraw roughly 2,000 troops has felled a pillar of American policy in the Middle East. Critics say Trump’s decision will make it harder to find a diplomatic solution to Syria’s seven-year-old conflict.

For Turkey, the step removes a source of friction with the United States. Erdogan has long castigated his NATO ally over its support for Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters against Islamic State. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and an offshoot of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), fighting for Kurdish autonomy across the border on Turkish soil.

In a speech in Istanbul, Erdogan said Turkey would mobilize to fight remaining Islamic State forces in Syria and temporarily delay plans to attack Kurdish fighters in the northeast of the country – shifts both precipitated by the American decision to withdraw.

The news was less welcome for other U.S. allies. Both France and Germany warned that the U.S. change off course risked damaging the campaign against Islamic State, the jihadists who seized big swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014-15 but have now been beaten back to a sliver of Syrian territory.

Likewise, the U.S.-backed militia spearheaded by the YPG said a Turkish attack would force it to divert fighters from the battle against Islamic State to protect its territory.

Islamic State launched an attack in Syria’s southeast against the U.S.-backed SDF militia, employing car bombs and dozens of militants.

“We will be working on our operational plans to eliminate ISIS elements, which are said to remain intact in Syria, in line with our conversation with President Trump,” Erdogan said, referring to Islamic State.

The Turkish president had announced plans last week to start an operation east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria to oust the YPG from the area that it largely controls. This week, he said the campaign could come at any moment. But on Friday, he cited the talk with Trump as a reason to wait.

“Our phone call with President Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials and statements by the United States, have led us to wait a little longer,” he said.

“We have postponed our military operation against the east of the Euphrates river until we see on the ground the result of America’s decision to withdraw from Syria.”

The Turkish president said, however, that this was not an “open-ended waiting period”.

Turkey has repeatedly voiced frustration over what it says is the slow implementation of a deal with Washington to pull YPG fighters out of Manbij, a town in mainly Arab territory west of the Euphrates in northern Syria.

The United States will probably end its air campaign against IS in Syria when it pulls out troops, U.S. officials have said, as Trump has been forced to defend the planned withdrawal against criticism from allies abroad and at home.

‘TIME FOR OTHERS TO FIGHT’

Trump maintained that IS had been wiped out, a view not shared by key allies, that Washington had been doing the work of other countries and it was “time for others to finally fight”.

His defense secretary, Jim Mattis, opposed the decision and abruptly announced on Thursday he was resigning after meeting with the president.

In a candid letter to Trump, the retired Marine general emphasized the importance of “showing respect” to allies that have voiced surprise and concern about the president’s decision.

Russia said on Friday it did not understand what the United States’ next steps in Syria would be, adding that chaotic and unpredictable decision-making in Washington was creating discomfort in international affairs.

Several of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress, joined by opposition Democrats, urged the president to reverse course, saying the withdrawal would strengthen the hand of Russia and Iran in Syria and enable a resurgence of Islamic State.

Trump has given no sign of changing his mind. He promised to remove forces from Syria during his 2016 election campaign.

The roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, many of them special forces, were ostensibly helping to combat Islamic State but were also seen as a possible bulwark against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has retaken much of the country from his foes in the multi-sided civil war, with military help from Iran and Russia.

IS declared a caliphate in 2014 after seizing parts of Syria and Iraq. The ultra-hardline Sunni militants established their de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.

A senior U.S. official last week said Islamic State was down to the last 1 percent of the territory it once held. The group has no remaining territory in Iraq, though militants have resumed attacks since their defeat there last year.

Islamic State launched an attack on Friday on positions held by the SDF in Syria’s southeast and the U.S.-led coalition mounted air strikes in the area, an SDF official said.

Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria may not be able to continue to hold Islamic State prisoners if the situation in the region gets out of control after a U.S. pullout, top Syrian Kurdish official Ilham Ahmed said on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch, Ali Kucukgocmen and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara and John Irish in Paris; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Roche)

Turkey says will drive Kurdish YPG from Syrian border area if no deal with U.S.

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the south eastern city of Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey will drive the Kurdish YPG militia away from the Syrian border if it does not reach agreement with the United States on a plan to remove the group from Syria’s Manbij region, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday.

“If this plan is not realised, the only option left will be clearing away terrorists. This is not just valid for Syria, but also for Iraq,” he said in interview with state-run Anadolu news agency.

He added that President Tayyip Erdogan and President Donald Trump will speak by telephone on Thursday.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by David Dolan)

Turkey says its forces won’t stay in Syria’s Afrin region

Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army are deployed in Afrin, Syria March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil As

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish forces will withdraw from the Syrian border region of Afrin, leaving it to its “real owners”, once it has been cleared of “terrorists”, Turkey said on Monday.

Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies swept into the regional capital, also called Afrin, on Sunday, raising their flags in the town center and declaring full control after an eight-week campaign against the Kurdish YPG militia.

“We are not permanent there (in Afrin) and we are certainly not invaders. Our goal is to hand the region back to its real owners after clearing it of terrorists,” Bekir Bozdag, a deputy prime minister, told reporters.

The fight for Afrin, a once-stable pocket of northwest Syria, has opened a new front in the country’s multi-sided civil war and highlighted the ever-greater role of foreign powers such as Turkey. More than 150,000 people have fled Afrin in recent days, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said.

Bozdag said the capture of the town of Afrin as part of Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’ had significantly reduced threats to its borders.

It is Turkey’s second cross-border operation into Syria during that country’s seven-year civil war.

The first operation, dubbed “Euphrates Shield”, targeted what Ankara called a “terror corridor” made up of Islamic State and Kurdish fighters further east from Afrin along its southern frontier with Syria.

After the completion of the Euphrates Shield operation in early 2017, Turkey set up local systems of governance in the swathe of land captured, stretching from the area around Azaz – located to the northeast of Afrin – to the Euphrates River and protected by Turkish forces present there.

Bozdag said Turkey now aimed to form similar governance systems in the Afrin region, without elaborating.

Turkey’s campaign in Afrin has drawn criticism in the West, including the United States and France, which have provided arms and training to the YPG and fear that the incursion could weaken international action against Islamic State fighters in Syria.

Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the militant PKK group that has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey for decades. Turkey has been infuriated by the Western support given to the Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Bozdag said Turkey had collected “most” of the weapons given to Kurdish fighters by the United States, after the YPG left the arms behind as they fled the town.

(Reporting by Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan and Gareth Jones)

Syrian Observatory: Turkish jets attack pro-government forces in Afrin

BEIRUT/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish warplanes attacked pro-Syrian government forces overnight, killing at least 17 people in a village in the north of the Afrin region in northwestern Syria, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday.

The dead included three members of the Syrian Kurdish YPG force, while the rest came from militias that support President Bashar al-Assad and entered Afrin last week to help repel a Turkish offensive, the Observatory said.

The Turkish military declined to comment on the Observatory report, but the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Friday that Turkish attack helicopters had killed nine YPG fighters in the west of Afrin.

Another Turkish news agency, Dogan, reported that Turkish and allied forces had started an operation on Friday morning to take control of the town of Rajo in Afrin.

Turkey and allied Syrian rebel groups began their operation against the YPG in Afrin in January, aiming to drive out the Kurdish militia, which Ankara sees as a terrorist group linked to an insurgency inside Turkey’s borders.

Despite making slow progress at first, the offensive has gained control over all Afrin’s border areas adjoining Turkey. Late on Thursday, the Turkish military said eight Turkish soldiers had been killed and 13 injured in clashes in Afrin.

Last month, after the YPG asked the Syrian government to send its army to repel the offensive, pro-Syrian government militias crossed into Afrin and deployed along the frontlines with Turkey.

However, the move did not deter the Turkish offensive and has not so far heralded any wider escalation involving the Syrian government and the forces that support it.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall in Beirut, Daren Butler in Istanbul and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Turkey gains control of border strip inside Syria’s Afrin, sends special forces

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters sit at a back of a pick-up truck near the city of Afrin, Syria February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ellen Francis

ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Turkish army on Monday took control of the outer edge of Syria’s Afrin region, state media said, as Ankara said it was readying for a “new battle” by deploying police special forces.

The military and allied Syrian rebel factions pushed some Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters back from the frontier near the Turkish border, effectively creating a “crescent” of control on Syria’s side of the border, the state-run news agency Anadolu reported.

Since launching its operation in the northwest Syrian region, Turkey has captured 115 “strategic points” and 87 villages, Anadolu said.

The Syrian Kurdish YPG forces said Turkish warplanes had struck a village near Jandaris in the southwest of Afrin, killing five civilians.

A YPG-led alliance said its forces had responded in self-defense to Turkish attacks, and that fighting raged on multiple fronts around Afrin. Five Turkish soldiers were killed in the space of 24 hours, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said Turkish troops now held a continuous strip on the edge of Afrin.

The advance opens a corridor that links territory in Aleppo province under the control of rebels backed by Turkey with the insurgent stronghold of Idlib province.

Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey for three decades – though the groups say they are independent.

“NEW BATTLE APPROACHING”

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told the broadcaster NTV that the deployment of police special forces “is in preparation for the new battle that is approaching”.

Dogan news agency reported that gendarmerie and police special forces had entered Afrin from two points in the northwest, and said they would take part in urban fighting and holding villages that Turkish forces had seized.

Most of the larger towns in the region, including the town of Afrin itself, remain under YPG control.

Turkey says Saturday’s U.N. Security Council demand for a 30-day truce across Syria does not apply to its offensive in Afrin.

“Some regions such as eastern Ghouta are part of the U.N.’s ceasefire decision in Syria, but Afrin is not one of them,” said Bozdag, who is also the government spokesman. “The decision will not impact our Olive Branch operation … in the Afrin region.”

But French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday told Turkey the ceasefire did apply to Afrin.

The U.N. Security Council resolution demands all parties “cease hostilities without delay … for a durable humanitarian pause for at least 30 consecutive days throughout Syria”.

The cessation does not apply to military operations against Islamic State, al Qaeda and groups associated with them or other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the Security Council.

The PKK is branded a terrorist group by the United States and European Union as well as by Turkey, but the YPG is Washington’s main military ally in northeast Syria.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul; Writing by Dominic Evans and David Dolan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Turkey denies allegation of chemical attack in Syria

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter stands on rubble in Northern Afrin countryside, Syria, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashaw

MUNICH (Reuters) – Turkey never used chemical weapons in its operations in Syria, and takes the utmost care of civilians, its foreign minister said, after Syrian Kurdish forces and a monitoring group accused it of carrying out a gas attack in Syria’s Afrin region.

“It’s just a fabricated story. Turkey has never used any kind of chemical weapons,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters at the Munich Security Conference.

Cavusoglu dismissed the reports as propaganda by organizations close to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a three-decade insurgency on Turkish soil.

He said Turkey took the utmost care to protect civilians in the military operation, while the YPG was using civilians as “human shields” in areas under its control.

Syrian Kurdish forces and a monitoring group said the Turkish military carried out a suspected gas attack that wounded six people in Syria’s Afrin region on Friday.

Turkey launched an air and ground offensive last month on the Afrin region, opening a new front in the multi-sided Syrian war, to target Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

The White House said it was aware of the reports but could not confirm them.

“We judge it is extremely unlikely that Turkish forces used chemical weapons,” a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council said. “We continue to call for restraint and protection of civilians in Afrin.”

Birusk Hasaka, a spokesman for the Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin, told Reuters that a Turkish bombardment hit a village in the northwest of the region, near the Turkish border. He said it caused six people to suffer breathing problems and other symptoms indicative of a gas attack.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters that Turkish forces and their Syrian insurgent allies hit the village on Friday with shells. The Britain-based war monitoring group said medical sources in Afrin reported that six people in the attack suffered breathing difficulties and dilated pupils, indicating a suspected gas attack.

Syrian state news agency SANA, citing a doctor in a Afrin hospital, said Turkish shelling of the village caused choking in six people.

On Feb. 6, the United Nations called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria.

Since the onset of the conflict in 2011, the YPG and its allies have set up three autonomous cantons in the north, including Afrin. Their sphere of influence expanded as they seized territory from Islamic State with U.S. help, though Washington says it opposes their autonomy plans.

U.S. support for Kurdish-led forces in Syria has infuriated Ankara, which views them as a security threat along its frontier. Turkey sees the YPG as terrorists and an extension of the banned PKK.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Peter Graff)

U.S. and Turkey agree to mend ties; Turks propose joint deployment in Syria

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Yara Bayoumy, Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) – The United States and Turkey agreed on Friday to try to rescue a strategic relationship that Washington acknowledged had reached a crisis point, with Turkey proposing a joint deployment in Syria if a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia leaves a border area.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met President Tayyip Erdogan during a two-day visit that followed weeks of escalating anti-American rhetoric from the Turkish government.

While relations between Washington and its main Muslim ally in NATO have been strained by a number of issues, Turkey has been particularly infuriated by U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists.

Turkey launched an air and ground assault last month in Syria’s northwest Afrin region to sweep the YPG away from its southern border. The United States has armed, trained and aided YPG fighters with air support and special forces, as the main ground force in its campaign against Islamic State.

“We find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship,” Tillerson told a news conference after meeting with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday morning. He had met with Erdogan for a more than three-hour discussion on Thursday night.

“We’re going to act together from this point forward. We’re going to lock arms. We’re going to work through the issues that are causing difficulties for us and we’re going to resolve them.”

The United States has no troops on the ground in Afrin, where the Turkish offensive has so far taken place. But Turkey has proposed extending its campaign further east to the town of Manbij, where U.S. troops are based, potentially leading to direct confrontation with U.S.-backed units.

In a proposal that could signal an important breakthrough in efforts to overcome the allies’ stark differences over Syria, a Turkish official told Reuters that Turkey had proposed that Turkish and U.S. forces could deploy jointly in Manbij.

Such a joint deployment could take place if YPG fighters first withdrew to positions east of the Euphrates river, long a Turkish demand.

Neither Tillerson nor Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, directly responded to a question about Reuters’ report of a possible joint deployment to Manbij.

MANBIJ

Turkey would be able to take joint steps with the United States in Syria once the YPG left the vicinity of Manbij, Cavusoglu told reporters.

“What is important is who will govern and provide security to these areas,” he said. “We will coordinate to restore stability in Manbij and other cities. We will start with Manbij. After YPG leaves there, we can take steps with the U.S. based on trust.”

He also said the two countries had created a “mechanism” for further talks and would meet again by mid-March to further hash out their differences. Tillerson said issues around Manbij would receive priority in the talks, acknowledging Washington had not fufilled some of its promises to Turkey on Manbij.

“The United States made commitments to Turkey previously, we’ve not completed fulfilling those commitments. Through the working group, we’re going to address that and Manbij is going to receive priority,” he said.

Turkey’s pro-government media has been particularly scathing of the United States over its failure to keep a promise that the YPG would leave the town once Islamic State was defeated there.

“But it’s not just Manbij. We have to think about all of northern Syria,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson said he recognized Turkey’s legitimate right to defend its borders, but called on Ankara to show restraint in the Afrin operation and avoid actions that would escalate tensions in the area.

He also said the United States had serious concerns about local employees at its missions in Turkey and called on Ankara to release a U.S. pastor and other Americans detained in Turkey.

(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Gareth Jones, Peter Graff and Andrew Heavens)

Turkey demands U.S. expel Kurdish militia from anti-Islamic State force

U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis poses with Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli during a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Virginia Mayo/Pool

By Idrees Ali and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Turkey said on Thursday it had demanded that the United States expel a Kurdish militia from the ground forces it backs in Syria, underscoring the widening gulf between the NATO allies since Ankara launched a new Syrian offensive last month.

Ties between Turkey and the United States, both allies in a U.S.-led coalition fighting against Islamic State, have been strained to the breaking point by Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara sees as terrorists.

The issue is expected to dominate a visit to Turkey by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday and Friday at a time when relations between Washington and Ankara are fraying over a range of other issues as well.

Turkey launched an air and ground operation in northwest Syria’s Afrin region to drive the YPG from its southern border.

Ankara considers the YPG to be an arm of the PKK, a banned group that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. The YPG is the main ground element of the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), which the United States has armed, trained and aided with air support and special forces to fight Islamic State.

“We demanded this relationship be ended, I mean we want them to end all the support given to the Syrian arm of PKK, the YPG,” Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli told reporters in a briefing in Brussels, a day after meeting U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on the sidelines of a NATO meeting.

“We demanded this structure be removed from SDF,” he said.

Speaking with reporters on the sidelines of the NATO meeting, Mattis said his talks with his Turkish counterpart were open and honest, but acknowledged the differences.

“I believe we are finding common ground and there are areas of uncommon ground, where sometimes war just gives you bad alternatives to choose from…. We continue to collaborate on ways to ensure their legitimate concerns are addressed.”

RENEWED FOCUS

A U.S. statement said Mattis had urged Turkey to keep attention on fighting Islamic State: “He called for a renewed focus on the campaign to defeat ISIS, and to preventing any vestige of the terrorist organization from reconstituting in Syria,” it said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Islamic State fighters were driven last year from all the population centers they occupied in both Syria and Iraq, but Washington still considers them a threat, capable of carrying out an insurgency and plotting attacks elsewhere.

Ankara has placed greater emphasis in recent months on the need to combat the Kurdish militia and has said the United States is merely using one terrorist group to combat another.

Turkey says the United States has yet to honor several pledges: to stop arming the YPG, to take back arms after Islamic State was defeated in Syria, and to pull YPG forces back from Manbij, a Syrian town about 100 km (60 miles) east of Afrin.

Canikli also said that Mattis had told him the United States was working on a plan to retrieve weapons given to the YPG, especially heavy weapons. However, Tillerson later said that Washington had “never given heavy arms” to the YPG and there was therefore “nothing to take back”.

POWERFUL FRIENDS

Turkey is the main Muslim ally of the United States within NATO and one of Washington’s most powerful friends in the Middle East dating back to the Cold War era. But widening differences on Syria policy are just one of a number of issues that have caused a rupture in that strategic relationship.

It also accuses Washington of sheltering a cleric it blames for plotting a failed coup in 2016. The United States convicted a Turkish banker mast month for violating sanctions on Iran in a case that included testimony alleging corruption by top Turkish officials. The two countries also halted issuing visas for months after locally hired U.S. consular staff were detained on suspicion of links to alleged coup plotters.

The Turkish authorities have jailed tens of thousands of people and ordered 150,000 fired or suspended from their jobs since the failed coup. President Tayyip Erdogan has increasingly used stridently anti-European and anti-American rhetoric.

The Turkish offensive against the YPG in Syria has so far been limited to Afrin, a border region where the United States is not believed to have troops on the ground. But Turkey has openly discussed extending it to other areas where its forces could potentially come into contact with units supported by the Americans. It says Washington should pull its forces out of the way; the United States says it has no plans to withdraw.

Canikli said he disputed Washington’s characterization of the U.S.-backed SDF as controlled by ethnic Arabs rather than the Kurdish fighters.

“Mattis said the SDF is largely controlled by Arab elements. We said on the contrary, the SDF is completely controlled by the PYD and YPG,” he said in comments broadcast live on television. “The other elements are for show only.”

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Editing by Peter Graff)