Erdogan says Turkey will not leave Syria until other countries pull out

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey will not leave Syria until other countries pull out, President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying on Friday, and Ankara will continue its cross-border offensive against Kurdish fighters until every one of them has left the region.

Turkey launched its third military incursion into northeast Syria last month to drive Kurdish YPG fighters from its border and establish a "safe zone" where it aims to settle up to 2 million Syrian refugees.

After seizing a 120-km (75-mile) swathe of land along the border, Turkey struck deals with the United States and Russia to keep the Kurdish militia out of that area.

Speaking to reporters on his flight home from a trip to Hungary, Erdogan said Turkey would only leave Syria once other countries have left as well, adding that the Turkish offensive would continue until all militants leave the area.

"We will not let up until every last terrorist leaves the region," Erdogan said, referring to the YPG, the main component of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that Ankara views as a terrorist organization.

"We will not leave here until the other countries get out," he was cited as saying by broadcaster NTV.

Ankara began its offensive after Trump announced an abrupt withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria last month. The U.S. president has since said that some troops will continue to operate there.

Under its deals with Washington and Moscow, Ankara paused its offensive in return for the withdrawal of the YPG fighters. While U.S. and Russian officials have said the Kurdish fighters have left the region, Erdogan on Thursday accused Russia and the United States of not fulfilling their part.

With the deal Ankara struck with Moscow, Turkish and Russian troops have been holding joint patrols along the Turkish border with Syria. On Friday, the troops completed a third patrol, but a spokesman for the SDF said Turkish troops had used tear gas against some civilians protesting against the patrols.

"Turkish troops targeted civilians peacefully protesting against the patrols...with tear gas and injured 10 people," said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali on Twitter.

Turkey's defense ministry said in a statement that the third patrol was completed as planned along an 88-km route along the most easterly section of the border at a depth of 10 km.

U.S. VISIT

Turkey's European allies have said the offensive will hinder the battle against Islamic State. Ankara has rejected the accusation, saying its allies should back its plans to resettle the majority of the 3.5 million Syrian migrants Turkey hosts.

Ibrahim Kalin, a top aide to Erdogan, said on Friday that the leaders of Germany, France, Britain and Turkey would meet on the sidelines of a NATO summit in London on Dec. 3-4 to discuss the situation in Syria.

The talks in London will follow Erdogan's Nov. 13 visit to Washington, where he will meet Trump to discuss Syria, as well as repercussions of Ankara's purchase of Russian S-400 defense systems, the threat of U.S. sanctions, and the case of Turkish state lender Halkbank, which has been charged by U.S. prosecutors with being part of a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Washington says the S-400s threaten its F-35 fighters jets, and has suspended Turkey from the F-35 program.

"We believe it will be beneficial to discuss certain issues that we tackled before and some that we did not during face-to-face talks on Nov. 13," Erdogan told reporters on his return flight from Hungary, according to NTV.

"Of course, we will discuss the safe zone in Syria and the return of refugees. We will discuss the S-400s, F-35s, our $100 billion trade volume issue. We will also discuss the battle with FETO and the Halkbank issue," he said, referring to the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Ankara blames Gulen for orchestrating a 2016 failed coup, a charge he has denied, and has repeatedly demanded that Washington extradite him.

Turkish officials said earlier this week that Erdogan might call off the U.S. visit in protest at votes by U.S. lawmakers to seek sanctions on Turkey over its offensive into northeast Syria, and recognize mass killings of Armenians a century ago as genocide. The visit was later confirmed after a phone call between Erdogan and Trump on Wednesday.

Erdogan told reporters on Friday that he would hold a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday to "form the basis" of his talks in Washington, according to NTV.

(Reporting by Orhan Coskun, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Dominic Evans, William Maclean)

11/08/2019 15:11

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