(Photo credit: Delil Souleiman/AFP)
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview on 23 May that the Turkish army will “cleanse” northern Syria from Kurdish militants, stressing that Ankara intends to cooperate with Damascus in doing so.
“Ankara will cleanse the northeastern region of Syria from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), regardless of the forces that support its presence in the region,” Cavusoglu said.
“We do not care who supports them, whether it is America, France, or others,” he added. Ankara has repeatedly accused foreign intelligence, namely US intelligence, of supporting the PKK.
The PKK’s branch in Syria, the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), are militarily aligned with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are openly backed by Washington.
“We will cooperate with the Syrian government in clearing northern Syria,” Cavusoglu went on to say.
The foreign minister’s remarks come as Ankara and Damascus are involved in a Russian and Iranian-sponsored process to normalize relations. The last round of talks was held in Moscow on 10 May, during which Russia proposed a normalization roadmap.
“At the conclusion of the meeting in Moscow, we decided to establish a committee to prepare this roadmap,” Cavusoglu said. This committee, or four-way joint center as Defense Minister Hulusi Akar referred to it, will be based in northern Syria and will start holding meetings in the coming days.
However, Syria has made it a condition that normalization talks can only continue if Turkiye agrees to withdraw all forces and end support for extremist groups, namely Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Syrian National Army (SNA) coalition of armed groups.
Despite this, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in the last few days that Ankara’s withdrawal from Syria is “impossible.” He also renewed threats to establish a 30-kilometer security zone on Syrian territory to act as a buffer against Kurdish militants.
In the last few months, Syria has held negotiations with SDF representatives. While somewhat positive, several complications remain prevalent.
The SDF has expressed concern that an agreement with Damascus may compromise the status of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), within which US-backed Syrian Kurds enjoy de facto autonomy.
Kurdish sources close to the SDF told Al-Akhbar newspaper a few months ago that the group’s best option is an agreement.
The chief of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, said last month that his group is open to merging with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).
According to analysts, a military merger between the SDF and the Syrian army would prevent a joint Turkish-Syrian operation against Kurdish militants from taking place – given that such a merger would remove the SDF and allied Kurdish groups from the vicinity of the Turkish border.
A joint Turkish-Syrian military operation – which Cavusoglu said Ankara intends to launch – would extend across Syria’s M4 international highway.
The M4 highway is highly strategic, as it extends across five Syrian governorates and leads into Iraq, covering the areas under the control of HTS, the SNA, and the SDF. This includes the areas in which Erdogan plans to implement the 30-kilometer security zone.
According to a source who spoke with The Cradle in January, an operation on the M4 is inevitable and will be spearheaded by the Syrian, Russian, and Turkish armies, as well as the SNA. This operation’s main purpose would be clearing HTS from the highway and making it operational once again.
Some have suggested that in such a case, the SDF would be forced to either maintain its US backing and fight the joint Turkish-Syrian-Russian force or merge with the Syrian army.
Such an operation would also force the SNA to merge with the Syrian army as part of a political solution.