ISTANBUL — Turkey’s defense minister said Saturday that military officials from Turkey and the United States have begun work to create a “safe zone” along its border in northeastern Syria.
Turkey's official Anadolu news agency quoted Defense Minister Hulusi Akar as saying that generals from Turkey and the U.S. had begun work in a joint operations center in the Turkish province of Sanliurfa to set up the zone and that joint helicopter patrols were set to begin.
Turkey has been pressing to control — in coordination with the U.S. — a 19-25 mile (30-40 kilometer) deep zone within civil war-ravaged Syria, running east of the Euphrates River all the way to the border with Iraq.
Turkey wants the region along its border to be clear of Syrian Kurdish forces and has threatened on numerous occasions to launch a new operation in Syria against Syrian Kurdish forces if such a zone is not established.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that the U.S. intends to prevent any unilateral invasion by Turkey into northern Syria, saying any such move by the Turks would be unacceptable.
Turkey sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters, who make up the majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces and are allied with the U.S., as terrorists aligned with a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey. American troops are stationed in northeast Syria, along with the Kurdish forces, and have fought the Islamic State group together. The differing positions on the Kurdish fighters have become a major source of tension between NATO allies Turkey and the U.S.
The commander in chief of the SDF, Gen. Mazloum Abdi, said his group will do all it can to ensure that the understandings between the U.S. and Turkey are successful. He added in a speech in the northeastern province of Hassakeh on Saturday that the SDF will be "a positive side in bringing" stability to the whole region.
"We will exert all efforts to achieve accord with the Turkish state in coordination with the United States," Abdi said.
Turkey’s combative president is threatening to launch a military operation in northeastern Syria that is designed to push back U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish forces — an invasion that carries major risks for a highly combustible region in war-devastated Syria.
Syria's government has called the agreement reached earlier this month for a safe zone a serious escalation that violates its sovereignty. It said it was part of Turkey's "expansionist ambitions" in Syria, aided by Washington and its Syrian allies, the Kurdish-led forces.
Akar on Saturday also criticized the Syrian government for violating a de-escalation agreement in northwestern Idlib province after it captured a string of villages.
He said Turkey would retaliate if observations posts manned by Turkish troops are attacked.