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Turkey’s Erdogan warns of ramping up operation against Kurds

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech to members of parliament on Oct. 23, 2018, in Ankara, Turkey. Turkey has stockpiled crucial spare parts for weapons, anticipating sanctions from the U.S. (Depo Photos/Zuma Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he will continue with a military operation in northeastern Syria “with greater determination” if Kurdish fighters fail to meet the commitments of a U.S.-brokered cease-fire.

Speaking as he left Ankara for an October 22 meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Erdogan said all Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) must leave a “safe zone” Turkey wants to create along a section of its border with Syria.

The Turkish leader said that about 700 to 800 YPG members have already withdrawn, with another 1,200 to 1,300 still in the process.

“If the promises given to our country by the United States are not kept, we will continue our operation from where we left off with greater determination,” Erdogan said.

A five-day Washington-brokered cease-fire expires the same day in the area where Turkey is trying to establish a 120-kilometer “safe zone” near its border with the conflict-ravaged country and where it wants to resettle some 2 million war refugees it is harboring.

The Kremlin’s website stated that their meeting will be held in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi and will focus on topics also related to “countering international terrorist groups and promoting the political settlement process” in Syria.

Russia is allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey has backed rebels seeking to oust Syria’s leader during a civil war that has lasted more than eight years.

Assad on October 22 characterized Erdogan as a “thief,” according to the state news agency SANA.

“He [Erdogan] has robbed the factories, wheat and oil, and today he is robbing the land,” SANA quoted Assad as saying during a visit to Idlib.

Erdogan’s visit was preceded by a phone call between French President Emmanuel Macron and Putin, during which a request was made for extending the pause in fighting.

Macron emphasized to Putin, who has ordered soldiers to patrol the northern parts of Syria, “the importance of prolonging the current cease-fire, and of ending the crisis with diplomatic means.”

Turkey launched its offensive against Kurdish-led forces on October 9 after U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing the bulk of U.S. troops from northeast Syria.

Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia as terrorists, though the Kurds were instrumental in the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria earlier this year together with U.S. forces.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on October 21 said Trump is prepared to use military force if “needed,” when asked about Turkey’s attack on the Kurds.

Speaking to CNBC, Pompeo said, “We prefer peace to war.”

“But in the event that kinetic action or military action is needed, you should know that President Trump is fully prepared to undertake that action,” Pompeo said without specifying what constituted a red line for the United States to take military action toward fellow NATO member Turkey.

Critics at home and abroad called Trump’s decision a “betrayal” of U.S.-allied Kurds, and many expressed concerns that the thousands of IS prisoners being held by the Kurdish militias would be able to flee during the fighting.

European Council President Donald Tusk on October 22 condemned the candidate for EU membership’s invasion of Syria and urged Erdogan to pull back his troops.

Turkey “needs to end its military action permanently, withdraw its forces, and respect international humanitarian law,” Tusk said, adding that
“any other course means unacceptable suffering, a victory for Daesh [Islamic State], and a serious threat to European security.”

On October 21, video footage showed residents of a Kurdish-dominated Syrian city throwing food, including potatoes, at departing U.S. military vehicles as they drove past a crowd.

The video, shown by the Kurdish news agency, showed people hurling potatoes at the vehicles and shouting, “No America,” and “America liar,” in English.