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Turkey, U.S. reach agreement on some Syria issues, but questions remain

Turkey and the United States, allies that have clashed on a number of issues in recent years, said Wednesday they have agreed to establish a joint operation centre in Turkey to co-ordinate and manage a planned safe zone in northern Syria.

Statements released by both countries unclear on whether the 2 most contentious issues were bridged

Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near the Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria, in November 2018. Turkey has chafed at U.S. support for the SDF. (Rodi Said/Reuters)

Turkey and the United States said they agreed on Wednesday to establish a joint operation centre in Turkey to co-ordinate and manage a planned safe zone in northern Syria.

After three days of talks in Ankara, the two countries said the safe zone on Syria's northeast border with Turkey should be a "peace corridor," and that every effort would be made so that Syrians displaced by war can return to their country.

The agreement was announced in separate statements issued by Turkey's Defence Ministry and the U.S. Embassy in Ankara.

Neither statement said whether they had overcome two main points that had divided Washington and Ankara: how far the proposed safe zone should extend into Syria, and who would command forces patrolling the area.

Turkey's lira strengthened after the announcement, which followed warnings from Turkey that it could launch unilateral military action in northern Syria if Ankara and Washington failed to reach agreement on the safe zone. 

With U.S. backing, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes the Kurdish YPG militia, have taken control over the last four years of much of northeastern Syria in battles with ISIS militants. But the government in Ankara sees the YPG as a terrorist organization.

Turkey and the United States, allies in NATO, have been deadlocked for months over the scope and command of the safe zone. Ankara has accused Washington of stalling on setting up the safe zone, which would extend hundreds of kilometres along Syria's northeastern border, and has demanded that the United States sever its ties with the YPG.

Washington has proposed a two-tiered safe zone, with a five-kilometre demilitarized strip bolstered by an additional nine kilometres cleared of heavy weapons. That proposed distance into Syria is half of what Turkey was seeking.

Turkey has also said it must have ultimate authority over the zone, another point of divergence.

Defence Minister Hulusi Akar had said earlier that the United States was shifting closer to Ankara's views on the proposed safe zone, adding that Turkey's plans for a military deployment there are complete.

"Our plans, preparations, the deployment of our units in the field are all complete. But we said we wanted to act together with our friend and ally, the United States," state-owned Anadolu news agency quoted him as saying.

'Grave military confrontation' possible, Kurdish official warns

U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper said this week any Turkish operation into northern Syria would be "unacceptable." He said the United States did not have any "ambition" to abandon the SDF, but stopped short of guaranteeing that it would protect them in case of a Turkish attack.

Badran Jia Kurd, a top Kurdish official, told Reuters on Wednesday that a Turkish attack on Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria would spark a "big war" if U.S. efforts failed to block Ankara's plans.

"We want a political solution and dialogue," said Jia Kurd, adviser to the Kurdish-led administration running much of north and east Syria. "But if these regional and international efforts are exhausted, then we will be in a total, grave military confrontation."

Jia Kurd said a Turkish assault would lead to a "catastrophic conflict" that officials in the SDF region were doing all they could to prevent through talks with foreign states. But he added there was silence from European countries and "lack of seriousness" from Russia.

ISIS resurgence fears

Three Turkish officials who spoke to Reuters this week had expressed impatience that the talks have yet to yield results, and warned that Ankara was ready to act on its own.

Turkey has twice sent forces into northern Syria in the last three years, citing security concerns caused by Syria's eight-year-long civil war, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday a third incursion was imminent, targeting YPG-controlled territory east of the Euphrates River.

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. He has also declared ISIS defeated in Syria on a number of occasions this year.

On Tuesday, a U.S. Defence Department report warned about a revival of ISIS 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 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 [ISIS] cells and insurgent capabilities in Syria," the report said.

The Turkish-American agreement comes as the under-secretary of political affairs for the United Nations said Wednesday that reports suggest more than 100,000 people in Syria have been detained, abducted or gone missing during the eight-year conflict, with the government mainly responsible.

Rosemary DiCarlo urged the warring parties Wednesday to heed the UN Security Council's call for the release of all those arbitrarily detained, and to provide information to families about their loved ones as required by international law.

She also reiterated UN Secretary General António Guterres's call for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.

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