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Turkey mulls last-ditch US Syrian safe zone plan as military offensive looms

Turkish and American officials meeting in latest attempt to stave off an attack by Ankara's forces east of the Euphrates
Turkish military vehicles drive along a de-militarised zone in the northwestern countryside of Hama province (AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

A US military delegation arrived in Ankara on Monday to present a final offer on a proposed "safe zone" in northeastern Syria amid Turkish threats of military invasion.

The Turkish defence ministry said the meeting between US and Turkish officials began early Monday morning and it wasn’t clear when the discussions would wrap up. A Turkish official told Middle East Eye deliberations would continue until Tuesday.

Since last year, Turkey and US have been trying to find a solution to Turkish concerns over the presence of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia in northern Syria.

The YPG has been a key partner in Washington's battle against the Islamic State (IS) militant group, while Ankara sees it as a branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been waging a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

US officials, according to the Washington Post, are expected to deliver a draft plan that includes a nine mile-deep (14km) and 87 mile-long "safe zone" stretching from the Euphrates River to Iraq, which would be free of YPG elements.

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The plan suggests Turkey and the US would dismantle YPG fortifications in the area and conduct joint patrols, initially in the middle third of the zone that runs along the Turkish border.  The remaining two-thirds would be cleared and patrolled later.

Over the past week, Turkey has repeatedly said it requires a 20-mile deep "safe zone" controlled by its forces in coordination with the US military.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said that Ankara’s patience was coming to an end and Turkey had already informed Russia and the US that, if necessary, it would soon establish its own zone by moving forces east of the Euphrates without any help or coordination.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu echoed that firm tone on Monday.

"The US should positively answer our request to end its partnership with the YPG in Syria," Cavusoglu told reporters, according to AFP news agency. 

Turkey already has a significant military presence in northern Syria, after taking the towns of Jarablus and al-Bab from IS, and Afrin from the YPG.

A Turkish National Security Council statement last week said in that case the zone would be called a “peace corridor” and would eventually be used to host Syrian refugees based in Turkey.

Sources close to the Turkish government expect Ankara to refuse the latest US proposal if it doesn’t adhere to certain red lines, such as the depth and levels of control.

Yahya Bostan, a prominent columnist with close ties to the Turkish government, said one of the reasons behind the failure of the latest round of safe zone talks was some of its key elements.

The perceived failure of a joint plan in the flashpoint border city of Manbij was also an issue, he said. Turkish officials say US forces have failed to honour the Manbij roadmap signed last year by failing to extract the YPG from the area.

“Turkey was also unhappy with the idea of joint patrols. The United States had offered to conduct joint patrol missions in Manbij, which the Turks accepted, without actually taking any concrete steps. The joint patrol was actually limited to Manbij's borders," Bostan wrote.

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