Turkey pushing allies for ground operation in Syria

ISTANBUL (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) - Turkey on Tuesday (Feb 16) called for a joint ground operation in Syria with its international allies, adding that such an intervention was the only way to stop the country's five-year civil war. A senior Turkish official, briefing foreign reporters in Istanbul, said Turkey wanted such an operation to be carried out with Western and Gulf allies, but emphasised there were no plans to act unilaterally.

"We want a ground operation with our international allies," the official said, asking not to be named. "And that is what we are trying to raise in our meetings. Without a ground operation, it is impossible to stop the fighting in Syria. That is what we think. And we are the closest ones to Syria, so we feel the negative effects (from the fighting) more than the others. This has been voiced many times by us but we could not come to a conclusion" with allied states, he acknowledged.

The official was speaking after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at the weekend said Turkey and its ally Saudi Arabia could launch a ground operation in Syria against the jihadists. But the official said such a move needed to be made in concert with Turkey's allies in the international coalition against Islamic State (IS) jihadists, including the United States.

"There is not going to be a unilateral military operation from Turkey to Syria," the official said. "But of course it is difficult to reckon what could happen in 10 days. If the conditions change, there might be some options. But right now, we do not have such a plan. Our plan is to act in accordance with the international coalition. We are not going to do anything against the will of the coalition," the official said.

Turkey had previously called for a safe area for refugees backed by a no-fly zone inside Syria close to the Turkish border but this proposal met with only a lukewarm reception from allies. Asked what the aims of such a ground operation would be, the official said it should be to remove "all terror groups from Syria". The official said these included Islamic State (IS) jihadists, the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad but also the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

The United States has worked closely with the PYD in the fight against IS jihadists but Ankara regards the group as a terror organisation and the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The Turkish official said Ankara had presented US Vice-President Joe Biden with "proof" the PYD is a terror group during his visit to Istanbul in January, but admitted Washington has not accepted Ankara's argument.

Turkey meanwhile shelled Kurdish positions in northern Syria for a fourth straight day Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor. It said the shells had struck the town of Tal Rifaat, which was captured on Monday from mostly Islamist rebels by a Kurdish-Arab coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Turkish media also reported shelling on Kurdish positions around the rebel stronghold of Azaz. Ankara accuses the Kurdish forces of ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey. Turkey fears the Kurds will be able to create a contiguous Kurdish territory just across the border in northern Syria.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Tuesday accused Kurdish fighters of being “Russia’s legion working as mercenaries” with a priority aim of harming Turkey’s interests. Moscow says its military intervention has targeted IS and other “terrorists”, but activists say Russia’s raids have caused disproportionately high civilian casualties. Russia’s air strikes have allowed government forces to press a major operation that has virtually encircled rebels in eastern Aleppo city, as well as pushing them from much of the region to the north.

“Those vile, cruel and barbaric planes have made close to 8,000 sorties since September 30 without any discrimination between civilians and soldiers, or children and the elderly,” Davutoglu said in parliament.

Moscow meanwhile called Turkey’s shelling in Syria “provocative” and said it supported raising the issue at the UN Security Council. A US State Department spokesperson urged Turkey and Russia to avoid any further escalation.

“It is important that the Russians and Turks speak directly, and take measures to prevent escalation,” said the spokesperson. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressed “uneasiness” about France’s call over the weekend for an immediate halt to the shelling of Kurdish forces, a Turkish diplomatic source said.

Speaking on Monday with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault by telephone, Cavusoglu said Turkey was fighting against “elements of terror” in Syria.