Turkish FM announces deal against ISIL, US denies it

Turkish FM announces deal against ISIL, US denies it

ANKARA - Reuters
Turkish FM announces deal against ISIL, US denies it

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu answers a question during an interview with Reuters in Ankara, Turkey, August 24, 2015. Reuters Photo

As technical talks have been concluded, Turkey and the United States air forces can strike jihadists in Syria soon, Turkish Foreign Minister has said, but the White House has quickly denied it.

The two countries will soon launch “comprehensive” air operations to flush Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters from a zone in northern Syria bordering Turkey, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told Reuters on Aug. 24.

Detailed talks between Washington and Ankara on the plans were completed on Aug. 23, and regional allies including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, as well as Britain and France, may also take part, Çavuşoğlu said in an interview. 

“The technical talks have been concluded, yesterday, and soon we will start this operation, comprehensive operations, against Daesh [ISIL],” he said. 

However, hours after Çavuşoğlu's statement, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest denied that Turkey and the U.S. reached an agreement. 

Upon a question during his daily press briefing on Aug. 24, Earnest said that negotiations were continuing but there was no deal yet, according to private broadcaster CNN-Türk.

The United States and Turkey plan to provide air cover for what Washington judges to be moderate Syrian rebels as part of the operations, which aim to flush ISIL from a rectangle of border territory roughly 80 km long, officials familiar with the plans have said. 

Diplomats have said cutting ISIL’s access to the Turkish border, across which it has been able to bring foreign fighters and supplies, could be a game-changer. U.S. jets have already begun air strikes from Turkish bases in advance of the campaign. 

Çavuşoğlu said the operations would also send a message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and help put pressure on his administration to come to the negotiating table and seek a political solution for Syria’s wider war. 

Ankara has long argued lasting peace in Syria can only be achieved with al-Assad’s departure. U.S. officials, meanwhile, have made clear the focus of the coalition operations will be squarely on pushing back ISIL. 

“Our aim should be eradicating Daesh from both Syria and Iraq otherwise you cannot bring stability and security... But eliminating the root causes of the situation [in Syria] is also essential, which is the regime of course,” Çavuşoğlu said. 

He also made clear Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) militia forces, which have proved a useful ally on the ground for Washington as it launched air strikes on ISIL elsewhere in Syria, would not have a role in the “safe zone” the joint operations aim to create, unless they changed their policies. 

Ankara is concerned the PYD and its allies have aimed to unite Kurdish cantons in northern Syria and fear those ambitions will stoke separatist sentiment among its own Kurds. 

“Yes, the PYD has been fighting Daesh... But the PYD is not fighting for the territorial integrity or political unity of Syria. This is unacceptable,” Çavuşoğlu said. 

“We prefer that the moderate opposition forces actually control the safe zone, or Daesh-free areas, in the northern part of Syria, not the PYD, unless they change their policies radically in that sense,” he added. 

Both Ankara and Washington had given this message directly to the PYD, he said. 

PKK strikes to continue 

Turkey’s relations with the PYD, whose forces control territory on the eastern fringe of the proposed safe zone, are complicated by what officials in Ankara say are the group’s deep ties with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought an insurgency against Turkey for three decades. 

Çavuşoğlu said Turkey’s military operations against PKK targets in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey, where Ankara has been carrying out air strikes over the past month, would continue until the group laid down its weapons. 

The government says it launched the action against the PKK in response to an escalation in attacks on members of the security forces. Çavuşoğlu said 61 soldiers and police officers have been killed by the group in recent months and the military action would continue until it laid down its weapons. 

Critics say Turkey is using what it calls its “synchronized war on terror,” including its greater role in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL, as a cover to attack the PKK and try to stem Kurdish political and territorial ambitions. 

Ankara has denied those accusations. 

Diplomatic sources told Reuters on Aug. 21 a second group of rebel fighters trained in Turkey by the U.S.-led coalition could be deployed to Syria within weeks as part of the strategy to push back ISIL. 

The al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front said late last month it had detained some of a first group of less than 60 just weeks after they were deployed, and warned others to abandon the program, highlighting the fragility of the program. 

“In the second group we have around 100 [fighters],” Çavuşoğlu said, but made clear the ground forces were only part of the strategy. 

“The train and equip program [alone] will not be enough to fight Daesh, that is why we agreed with the United States to start joint operations soon,” he said. 

Asked whether Iran’s improving relations with West in the wake of its nuclear deal could help the prospects of a diplomatic solution in Syria, Çavuşoğlu was cautious. 

“We are very happy to see that Iran has been normalizing its diplomatic ties with many Western countries... Iran has better dialogue with many Western countries and that is what Turkey fully supports,” he said, noting Britain’s reopening on Aug. 23 of its embassy in Tehran. 

“But the situation in Syria, or in the region including Yemen and Iraq, is totally different to the nuclear deal. What we expect from Iran is a more constructive role in Syria and Iraq, and in Yemen,” Çavuşoğlu said.