ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey and the United States agreed on Wednesday to establish a joint operation centre in Turkey to coordinate and manage a planned safe zone in northeast Syria, a move that appeared to reduce the chance of imminent Turkish military action.
The two countries gave few details of the deal, which followed three days of talks between military delegations and months of stalemate over how far the safe zone should extend into Syria and who should command forces patrolling it.
The proposed zone aims to secure a strip of land stretching more than 400 km (250 miles) along Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey, much of it controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia that fought with U.S. support against Islamic State militants.
Ankara sees the YPG as terrorists who pose a grave security threat and has demanded that the United States sever its ties with the Kurdish militia.
Turkey has twice sent forces into northern Syria in the last three years to drive back YPG and Islamic State fighters from the border, and President Tayyip Erdogan had said on Sunday a third incursion was imminent, targeting YPG-controlled territory east of the Euphrates river.
Speaking at a news conference in Ankara on Wednesday alongside his Ukrainian counterpart, Erdogan said that talks with the United States had progressed in a “really positive” direction.
The process regarding the safe zone would begin with the operation centre being formed, he said.
“What really mattered here was the issue of this step being taken on the east of the Euphrates, and this is now being realised together with the Americans,” he said.
The two countries, allies in NATO, said they agreed on the “rapid implementation of initial measures to address Turkey’s security concerns”.
They also said the safe zone should be a “peace corridor,” and that every effort would be made so that Syrians displaced by war could return to their country.
Neither side said whether they had overcome two main points that had divided them.
Washington has proposed a two-tier safe zone, with a 5-kilometre (3-mile) demilitarised strip bolstered by an additional 9 km (5.6 miles) cleared of heavy weapons - stretching in total less than half the distance into Syria that Turkey is seeking.
Turkey has also said it must have ultimate authority over the zone, another point of divergence with the United States.
The Turkish Defence Ministry said it would be giving no further details for now of the agreement. News of the deal helped the lira hit its strongest level this week, of 5.469 to the dollar. It stood at 5.487 at 1604 GMT.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said earlier that Washington was shifting closer to Ankara’s views on the proposed safe zone.
He said Turkey’s plans for a military deployment there were complete. “But we said we wanted to act together with our friend and ally, the United States,” state-owned Anadolu Agency quoted him as saying.
Three Turkish officials who spoke to Reuters this week had expressed impatience over the talks and warned that Ankara was ready to act on its own.
A top Syrian Kurdish official told Reuters on Wednesday that any Turkish attack on Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria would spark a “big war”.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced last year that U.S. forces would leave Syria and began an initial withdrawal, a decision applauded by Ankara, and the two NATO allies agreed to create the safe zone.
On Tuesday, a U.S. Defense Department report warned about a revival of Islamic State in Syria’s northeast, saying U.S.-backed Kurdish groups were not equipped to handle the resurgent jihadist cells without U.S. support.
“The partial (U.S.) drawdown (has) occurred at a time when these fighters need additional training and equipping to build trust with local communities and to develop the human-based intelligence necessary to confront resurgent (Islamic State) cells and insurgent capabilities in Syria,” the report said.
Additional reporting by Daren Butler, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, Dominic Evans and Frances Kerry