January 10, 2019 / 8:38 AM / 11 days ago

Turkey says military operation in Syria not dependent on U.S. pull-out

ANKARA/CAIRO (Reuters) - Turkey’s planned military operation against a Kurdish militia in Syria does not depend on an American withdrawal from the region, Ankara said on Thursday, signalling Turkey remained undeterred by U.S. efforts to protect its local partners.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a ceremony in Ankara, Turkey January 10, 2019. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

The comments from Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu are the latest to highlight the deep divide between the two NATO allies over the implementation of President Donald Trump’s plan to bring home about 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria.

Trump’s plan, which has been clouded by mixed messages from himself and his administration, hinges on Turkish cooperation to secure a swathe of northeast Syria as the United States departs.

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, this week tried to make the case for guarantees that Turkey would not harm the U.S.-backed YPG Kurdish militia after the withdrawal - earning a stiff rebuke from Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in return.

Washington has partnered with the YPG in the fight against Islamic State in Syria, supplying it with weapons and training. Turkey, which considers the YPG a terrorist organisation, has long seen that support as a betrayal.

“Our problem is this: there is a terrorist organisation that poses a threat to us and the United States supports them,” Cavusoglu said in an interview with Turkey’s NTV.

“Whether they pull out or not, we must do whatever is necessary against an organisation that poses a threat to our national security.”

Trump’s abrupt decision last month to pull out of Syria sparked concern among officials in Washington and some Western allies, but it was lauded by Ankara. Turkey sees the YPG as part of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency in its largely Kurdish southeast.

CROSS PURPOSES

Trump’s decision prompted Turkey to put on hold plans to launch a campaign against the YPG in Syria. Ankara has repeatedly said since the operation could happen any time.

Officials from both sides have appeared to be speaking past each other. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday the withdrawal would not be scuppered despite Turkish threats against the YPG - while promising to protect the militia.

“It’s important that we do everything we can to make sure that those folks that fought with us are protected and Erdogan has made commitments, he understands that,” Pompeo told reporters on a visit to Iraq.

However, Erdogan’s spokesman dismissed the notion that the Turkish president had given any promises to protect the YPG, adding Ankara would not give guarantees to terrorists.

Pompeo, on a tour of the region, on Thursday sought to reassure Middle East allies that the United States would remain their partner despite the withdrawal.

FILE PHOTO - Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu attends a news conference after talks on forming a constitutional committee in Syria, at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 18, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

He also pushed back at what he said was “a story made up by the media” of a divide between Trump and his national security advisers over whether Islamic State had been defeated in Syria.

Turkey, for its part, has accused members of Trump’s administration of trying to muddy a clear understanding between the countries over the withdrawal.

“Bolton and others aren’t fans of withdrawing,” Cavusoglu, the foreign minister, said. “But what is important is the president’s, Trump’s, promises.”

Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Andrew Heavens

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