I told Putin and Trump we won’t step back in Syria: Erdoğan
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said he told both U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that “Turkey will not step back in Syria,” vowing that the ongoing campaign in Afrin will be expanded to other parts of the war-torn country, including Manbij.
“Last night I spoke with U.S. President Trump on these issues. I discussed the same things with Putin two days ago. I told them: ‘We won’t take steps backward from here. We are on the side of the suffering and the oppressed,’” Erdoğan said in an address at a meeting of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul on March 23.
Erdoğan and Trump spoke on the phone late on March 22 about strained ties between Ankara and Washington, particularly troubled due to the U.S.’s ongoing partnership with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. Turkey considers the YPG to be the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and therefore as a terrorist organization.
The Turkish military, along with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), launched “Operation Olive Branch” against the YPG in Afrin on Jan. 20, and Erdoğan vowed that operations “will not end in Afrin. Next are Idlib and Manbij.”
Manbij, a northwestern Syrian town, is particularly important as it is still under the control of the YPG alongside U.S. troops. Turkey has long been urging the U.S. to let the YPG pull back from Manbij to the east of Euphrates amid threats that it will not hesitate to launch an attack on YPG positions even if American troops are present.
No withdrawal from Manbij: US
However, a senior U.S. official said the U.S. “has no intention to leave Manbij,” despite Turkey’s words.
“U.S. forces are located in Manbij. We have made it very clear with the Turkish government that we will continue to operate there,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at a press conference in response to a question about the U.S.’s stance on Manbij.
Nauert also said talks with Ankara “have not been concluded” and Washington is willing to continue conversations, referring to the three “technical committees” formed by Turkey and the U.S. to solve contentious issues between the two countries.
Turkish and American delegations met in Washington on March 8 and 9 to find a way to resolve the Manbij problem but the dismissal of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has caused uncertainty about how the two countries will proceed. Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Ümit Yalçın is expected to travel to the U.S. to meet his counterpart John Sullivan next week.
‘More than 3,700 terrorists neutralized’
Meanwhile, Erdoğan stated that Turkey’s operations against the PKK and YPG are ongoing in various parts of Syria and Iraq and the number of “neutralized terrorists” in Syria since Jan. 20 exceeds 3,700.
“We will continue. We previously struck them through the Euphrates Shield Operation. And 160,000 [Syrian] brothers and sisters were able to return to their homes in an area of 2,000 square kilometers thanks to that operation. This piece of land is now under our control and locals are returning to their homes,” he said.
In a statement issued after Erdoğan’s phonecall with Trump, Turkish presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın stated that two leaders discussed “bilateral relations and regional issues.”
“Our president held a phone conversation with U.S. President Trump. Bilateral and regional topics were discussed in the conversation,” Kalın said in a written statement.
Both leaders agreed to continue collaboration for common strategic goals and resolve issues that negatively affect bilateral relations, he added in a statement issued later on March 22.
“The importance of strengthening relations between the two NATO allies and strategic partners was discussed,” Kalın said.