ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey accused the United States on Tuesday of taking only “cosmetic steps” toward the creation of a so-called “safe zone” in northeast Syria and renewed Ankara’s threat of unilateral military intervention to form a buffer area along its border.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told journalists that Washington was too strongly involved with U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters and was stalling on plans for the safe zone.
Turkey has been pressing for the zone to keep the Syrian Kurdish fighters away from the border. Ankara considers the fighters terrorists, claiming they are linked to a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey’s borders.
U.S. flags fluttered on the back of coalition armored vehicles as they whizzed past tiny hamlets in northeastern Syria. Once part of the sprawling territories controlled by the Islamic State group, the areas are now under threat of an attack from Turkey, which considers these villages’ liberators, the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish-led forces, to be terrorists.
The Syrian Kurdish fighters were the top U.S. allies in the war against the Islamic State group in Syria.
“We are speaking about an ally who cannot act independently from the terror organization,” Cavusoglu said, referring to the U.S. “While on one side, it is taking cosmetic steps with us, on the other side, it is strengthening its engagement with” Syrian Kurdish fighters.
He was referring to recent joint Turkish-U.S. helicopter patrols of the planned safe zone region, as well as a joint ground forces patrol that took place on Sunday. U.S. troops on Saturday also conducted patrols with the local Syrian Kurdish-led forces, which annoyed Turkey.
“Turkey’s plans are ready,” Cavusoglu said. “To clear this region of terrorists is a matter of national security.”
Turkey’s president threatened Saturday to launch a unilateral offensive into northeastern Syria if plans to establish a so-called safe zone along Turkey’s border fail to meet his expectations, including a demand that Turkish soldiers control the corridor.
The minister’s comments came as two U.S. military officials were visiting Turkey for talks on what Ankara calls “safe zone.” The U.S. and Syrian Kurdish forces refer to it as a “security mechanism.”
Turkey’s defense ministry said a delegation headed by Lt. Gen. Stephen Twitty, deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, and Lt. Gen. Thomas Bergeson, deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, met Turkish military officials on Tuesday. The ministry said more discussions would be held Wednesday at a joint operations center near Turkey’s border with Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday rifts remain in the way Turkey and the U.S. envision the zone, claiming Washington was “trying to create a safe zone for the terrorist organization, not for us.”
So far, the Kurdish-led forces have withdrawn as deep as 14 kilometers (9 miles) from the border and have removed defensive positions, sand berms and trenches. The depth of the zone, as well as who will control it, is still being worked out.
Turkey has carried out several incursions into Syria during the country’s civil war in an effort to curb the expanding influence of the Kurdish forces.