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Turkey and US discuss American troop withdrawal from Syria

Phone call between Mike Pompeo and Mevlut Cavusoglu comes amid ongoing uncertainty over security situation in northern Syria
The US said last month that it plans to pull about 2,000 US troops out of Syria (Reuters/File photo)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has discussed the withdrawal of American troops from Syria with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, the latest conversation between senior officials from the two countries about Washington's contentious pullout.

In a telephone call on Monday, Pompeo and Cavusoglu "discussed ongoing US-Turkish engagement" in Syria as it relates to the US troop withdrawal, said US State Department spokesman Robert Palladino.

"Pompeo reiterated the commitment of the United States to addressing Turkish security concerns along the Turkey-Syria border," Palladino said in a statement.

He said Pompeo also emphasised the importance that the US "places on the protection of forces that worked with the United States" and the international coalition that has been fighting the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.

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The conversation between the two leaders comes amid ongoing uncertainty over the security situation in northern Syria following Donald Trump's announcement last month that he planned to pull about 2,000 US troops out of the war-torn country.

Under pressure from critics who said he was abandoning Washington's Kurdish allies in Syria, Trump recently floated the idea of establishing a 32km "security zone" in the area, a proposal that has garnered initial support from leaders in Turkey.

However, US and Turkish officials appear to disagree over how such a zone would work - and which forces would ultimately have authority there.

The NATO allies have long been at odds over Washington's support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is made up primarily of Kurdish fighters belonging to the Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) militia, have been credited with leading the battle against IS.

Ankara considers the YPG to be an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both Washington and Ankara have designated a terrorist group.

Attacks in northern Syria

On Monday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey wasn't against the creation of a security zone in northern Syria, but would not allow such an area to be turned into "another swamp" against the country.

"We can never allow an implementation of a safe zone [to be established in northern Syria] to be transformed into another swamp against our country," the Turkish president said, as reported by state-run Anadolu news agency.

Erdogan said the security zone should aim to keep "terrorist organisations" from the Turkish border, Anadolu reported. He also said that he would discuss the proposal with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a planned visit to Moscow later this week.

Meanwhile, also on Monday, five Kurdish fighters were killed when a car bomb targeted US-led coalition forces in northeastern Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said the fighters belonged to the SDF.

The attack was the second against US forces and their allies in Syria in about a week, after IS claimed responsibility for an attack on a restaurant in Manbij last Wednesday that killed four Americans.

Manbij is a key northern Syria town near the Turkish border that has been a longstanding point of tension between the US and Turkey.

Two US service members, one US Department of Defence civilian and one contractor supporting the DoD were killed, while three other US service members were wounded in the blast.

Erdogan has described the attack on US forces in Manbij as a "provocation" that aims to influence Trump's decision to pull US troops out of Syria.

In a telephone call with his US counterpart on Sunday, Erdogan told Trump that Turkey was ready to take over security in Manbij.

The SDF currently controls Manbij and Turkey has been threatening for months to launch an offensive there to drive out the group, while the US has warned Ankara against launching any military operation against the Kurds.