Turkey sees al-Nusra as main issue in post-ISIL era
The al-Nusra terror group will be the main issue to deal with in Syria in the post-Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) period, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said, stressing that targeting al-Nusra constitutes the “real pillar” of the ongoing Turkish-Russian operation in rebel-held Idlib.
“After DAESH [an Arabic acronym for ISIL], the real issue will be local terror organizations such as al-Nusra. Some [local groups] will recede while others [ISIL] will go away entirely. We want locals to return to their lands in Iraq and Syria. We encourage moderate opposition groups, the Free Syrian Army [FSA], to stake a claim on their lands,” Erdoğan told reporters while returning from a trip to Azerbaijan late on Oct. 31.
“This is the fact lying behind the operations we are carrying out with Russia,” Erdoğan said.
Ankara and Moscow are co-operating to monitor the ceasefire between the Syrian regime and opposition groups in the Idlib province of Syria as part of the Astana Process. Much of Idlib has been under the control of al-Nusra-linked groups since July.
Recalling that ISIL had to remove its forces to Deir ez-Zor, an oil-rich region in southern Syria, after leaving Raqqa, Erdoğan said “Deir ez-Zor must be cleared of DAESH.”
“There are currently around 2,000 DAESH members in Iraq and it controls only 10 percent of the territory. It is nearly finished and is running away from there. We will see whether its members will escape to Africa, the United States, or Europe,” he added.
‘Solidarity between Turkey and Russia’
As part of the deal in Astana, Turkey is monitoring the ceasefire inside Idlib and Russia outside the province, and Erdoğan said Turkey is “in solidarity with Russia on Idlib.”
“This will also cover Afrin province. Because Afrin could present threats to us at any moment. Members of the separatist terror organization may try to reach the Mediterranean through the north by occupying Idlib,” he added, referring to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which controls the Afrin canton along the Turkish border. Turkey designates the YPG as a terror organization that is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey will “never allow the YPG to expand its influence in the region,” Erdoğan vowed.
Recalling that Turkey has troops inside Syria even though it has not been invited by the Syrian state, he noted that the Russians have five bases in Syria while the U.S. has “five aerial and eight other bases” there at present.
“I always tell this to those who ask why we are there: There are terror organizations harassing us from [inside Syria]. We may stage cross-border operations against them any moment. Manbij, for example, is fully under the control [of the YPG],” he said.
Talks with al-Abadi
Erdoğan also touched on his talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Ankara last week, stressing that the fight against the PKK was among the issues discussed.
“Armed action against the PKK by the Iraqi central government is out of the question at the moment. Its priority is DAESH and it does not want to engage in such a thing before DEASH is fully cleared. But they have assured us that they will do whatever is necessary to disarm the separatist terror organization,” he said, adding that Turkey “will not have to wait for the central Iraqi government in operations against the PKK.
“We can launch cross border operations if anything negative happens toward our country, or in the event of a provocation. I have also explained what needs to be done so that we do not feel obliged to act,” he said.
‘Border gates under central gov’t’s control’
With the handover of the İbrahim Khalil border gate to the control of the Baghdad government from the KRG, Turkey will be able to deliver humanitarian aid to northern Iraq, Erdoğan said, hinting that the aid may also be sent through Iran, which currently has five border gates with Iraq.
“Both Iran and Iraq have told us this is possible. We are leaning toward delivering aid through the central government, since we don’t regard the KRG as our counterpart,” he added.
On KRG President Masoud Barzani’s recent decision to step down as leader after the KRG independence attempt failed, Erdoğan stressed the importance of Iraq remaining a “federal entity.”
“We think that such integration will benefit all Iraqi people. You see the recent developments with Catalonia in Spain. Where did the person who attempted to divide Spain flee? To Belgium,” he said.
‘Turkmens should return to Telafer’
President Erdoğan also stressed the importance of seeing the return of Iraqi Turkmens to Telafer, a northern Iraqi town that was liberated from ISIL in early 2017.
“There are around 400,000 Turkmens in Telafer. Half of them are Shiites, half of them Sunnis. Around 100,000 of them fled to Turkey and the rest are in nearby regions. Our aim is to let them return to their homes,” he said.
Azeri monument to Gallipoli
Erdoğan also addressed his talks with Azerbaijan President İlham Aliyev in Baku, noting that the two countries will co-commemorate the centennial foundation of the Caucasus Islamic Army in 2018.
“Our Azerbaijani brothers wish to build a monument in Gallipoli, so we have issued necessary instructions to our ministry for the allocation of a proper site in Gallipoli. Necessary works are now underway,” he said.
Gallipoli on Turkey’s northwestern coast was the scene of a major battle between the Ottoman Empire and the British-led allied forces during the First World War, which resulted in the defeat of the latter. The site hosts a number of memorials and monuments in memory of Turkish, British, French and Anzac soldiers who fought in the Dardanelles in 1915 and 1916.
Meeting with Putin
The Turkish president said he also discussed the decades-old Nagorno-Karabakh issue with Aliyev, pledging that Turkey will continue to stand with Azerbaijan on this issue.
“I will discuss this issue directly with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin either next week or the week after next. It seems a result on this issue will be facilitated if Putin really engages with it,” he added.