ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday his country is determined to destroy what he called a “terror corridor” in northern Syria — regardless of whether or not Turkey and the United States agree on the establishment of a so-called “safe zone” there.
U.S. and Turkish officials have been holding talks on creating a safe zone east of the Euphrates River to address Turkey’s security concerns stemming from the presence of Syrian Kurdish fighters in the region. Turkey views the Kurdish fighters — who have battled the Islamic State group alongside U.S. forces — as terrorists, allied with a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.
Ankara wants a zone along the border with Syria cleared of the Kurdish fighters and claims such a zone would be safe for Syrians and allow some of the country’s refugees to return.
Turkey has warned of a possible new offensive into Syria if an agreement on a safe zone is not reached, and has recently been sending reinforcements to its border area. Since 2016, Turkey has launched two cross-border offensives against IS and the Syrian Kurdish fighters.
In an apparent message to U.S.-allied Kurdish militiamen in Syria, Erdogan told party officials that “those who engage in bullying by putting their trust in foreign forces will tomorrow find themselves in the grave.”
Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the U.S. Central Command chief, had visited Syria’s Kurdish-held areas on Monday for the first time since he took his post in March. McKenzie met with the top Kurdish commander to discuss the safe zone.
Erdogan said a new Turkish incursion into Syria east of the Euphrates would cut off contact between Syria’s Kurdish fighters and Iraq, where Turkey has been carrying out airstrikes targeting alleged Kurdish rebel hideouts.
In Syria, the Foreign Ministry condemned what it called destructive U.S. interference in the country. It said U.S. involvement in Syria aims to prolong and complicate the crisis. A statement from an unnamed ministry official said Syria rejects any agreements with Turkey that blatantly violate its sovereignty.
Meanwhile, Erdogan also confirmed that Turkey had caught or killed all suspects behind the assassination of a Turkish diplomat last week in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
Turkish media reported Thursday that the military, acting on Turkish intelligence, targeted two vehicles carrying the alleged masterminds of the July 17 attack that killed diplomat Osman Kose at a restaurant in the city of Irbil. The reports said the planners of the attack and their bodyguards were killed on July 18 and July 24.
Iraq’s Kurdish officials said last weekend the lead suspect in the shooting was arrested. He was identified as a 27-year-old who hails from Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir.
“We caught all of those who martyred our consulate’s employee,” Erdogan said. “If any of them were missing, they were rendered ineffective in their dens through successful operations.”
On Friday, Iraq’s Kurdish security council released a video of purported confessions of six detained in connection with the diplomat’s killing — three Kurds from Turkey and three from Iraq’s Kurdish region. They included a man described as the main suspect. He said in the televised confessions that the assassination was planned at a base in northern Iraq of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Turkey’s insurgent group, by a senior group leader.
The video also contained new footage of the assassination, the attackers’ getaway from the scene and the arrest operation.
Associated Press writer Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.