Erdogan vows 'necessary steps' if US, Russian promises not kept

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart following their talks in the Black sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday. — AFP

ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that Turkey would take "the necessary steps" if Russian and American promises to push Kurdish fighters in Syria away from the Turkish border were not kept, in comments published on Wednesday.

After hours of talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi Tuesday, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed a deal in which Moscow will "facilitate the removal" of the fighters and their weapons from within 30 km (18 miles) of the border.

"If promises made in the US or Russian agreements are not kept, there will be no change regarding what necessary steps we must take," Erdogan said, indicating that Turkey would again unilaterally target Kurdish fighters it views as "terrorists".

"We will continue our operation with the same determination" if the US agreement is not adhered to, Erdogan told reporters on the return from Russia.

A Turkish assault that began on Oct. 9 was made possible by a pullback of US troops deployed along the border as a buffer force between their NATO ally Turkey and the fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, including the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia.

There was immediate condemnation in the West, with bipartisan criticism in the US Congress and sanctions slapped on Turkish ministers.

In a bid to silence his critics at a tense time, US President Donald Trump rushed his Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara Thursday to agree a 120-hour pause in fighting while the YPG withdraw from a 120-kilometer zone.

This ended at 1900 GMT Tuesday with the US telling the Turks that the YPG had withdrawn from the area between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ain. Washington promised Ankara an end to the operation would also mean sanctions would be lifted.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier Wednesday in a televised interview with the official Anadolu news agency said that Moscow had assured Ankara it would not allow Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime to cooperate with Kurdish fighters.

Ankara sees Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters as "terrorists" linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The PKK, blacklisted as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies, has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.

Cavusoglu said the Russians had assured Ankara that they would not allow the regime to cooperate with the YPG because Damascus also sees them as a separatist terror group.

Erdogan said that if the YPG "try to wear regime clothes to stay in the area, Putin told me: 'We will not allow it'," Turkey's NTV reported.

"Mr Putin spoke very firmly. He said: 'We will absolutely get rid of them from here'."

Moscow is one of the few remaining allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime in Damascus, while Ankara has backed rebels fighting for his ouster.

The presence of Kurdish forces in Syria has historically been a source of friction in ties between Ankara and Damascus.

The PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan fled Turkey before the 1980 military coup and lived in exile, mostly in Damascus.

Cavusoglu ruled out any direct talks with the Syrian regime for now.

"We have right now no direct contact with the regime. There are contacts at the intelligence level. This is natural especially in the fight against terror," he said.

Erdogan said he would still go ahead with a planned visit to Washington on Nov. 13 for a meeting with Trump. — AFP