Erdoğan accuses US of planning to form ‘terror army’ in Syria

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has accused the US of forming a “terror army”, after Washington announced plans for a 30,000-strong force inside Syria to protect territory held by its mainly Kurdish allies.

On Sunday, the US-led coalition said it was working with its Syrian militia allies, the mainly Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to set up the new border force. The force would operate along the borders with Turkey and Iraq, as well as within Syria along the Euphrates river, which separates most SDF territory from that held by the government. The announcement was one of the few insights into the Trump administration’s longer-term thinking for Syria.

The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish YPG, and the plan for the force dashes Turkish hopes that the US would abandon the YPG once the war against Islamic State came to an end. Turkey regards the Kurdish YPG militia as indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) operating inside Turkey, which it regards as a terror group.

“A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders,” Erdoğan said in a speech in Ankara. “What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born.”

Russia also opposed the plan, saying it could lead to the partitioning of Syria. For its part, the Syrian regime vowed to win back control of the entire country, including by removing any form of US-backed Syrian Kurdish force. The US plan was a blatant attack on Syrian sovereignty, Syria said.

Relations between Turkey and the US have unravelled in recent weeks, partly due to rows over the president’s planned visa restrictions. Turkey is also angry at the support the US continues to provide to the Syrian Kurdish forces that formed the backbone of the SDS, which led the military assault on Islamic State troops based in Raqqa.

Turkey sent troops into Syria in 2016 to prevent Syrian Kurdish fighters from forming a contiguous entity along its border. It has also supported rival Syrian rebels and independently fought to drive Isis from parts of Syria.

Turkey, a Nato member, said it would shortly mount an assault on the Kurdish-held Syrian town of Afrin, close to the Turkish border.

Erdogan said preparations for the military assault on Afrin “are complete,” adding that an operation could start any moment. He said Turkish troops are already firing artillery at Afrin from the border.
The Syrian government warned it “considers any Syrian who participates in these militias sponsored by the Americans as a traitor to their people and nation, and will deal with them on this basis”.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, giving his annual foreign policy press conference, described the US move as provocative and unilateral.

Russia and Iran, at the invitation of the Syrian government, are planning to keep forces inside Syria once the conflict ends. The planned border force may be seen as a bargaining chip, showing the US also has a stake in Syria’s future, including a tool with which to press Russia to negotiate on Assad’s future.

The US has about 2,000 troops in Syria and has said they will stay in the country until it is certain Islamic State is defeated, and progress is made in UN-led peace talks in Geneva on ending the conflict. The US is frustrated Russia has not put pressure on the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to negotiate at Geneva, but instead is pressing ahead with its own peace talks, the Syrian national dialogue congress scheduled this month at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.