Syria denounces US-Turkish deal on 'safe zone' in Syria
By ALBERT AJI | Associated Press | Published: August 8, 2019
DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria on Thursday accused Turkey of "expansionist ambitions," saying Ankara's agreement with Washington to set up a so-called safe zone in northeastern Syria is a serious escalation and a violation of Syria's sovereignty.
The statement by Syria's Foreign Ministry comes a day after the U.S. and Turkey announced they'd agreed to form a coordination center to set up the safe zone. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the move, which is designed to address Ankara's security concerns, was important.
The announcement offered little details on the safe zone but it may have averted — for now — a Turkish incursion into that part of Syria. Ankara seeks to push out U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters from the region as it considers them terrorists allied with a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.
The Syrian Kurdish fighters were the main fighting force on the ground against Islamic State militants in the area, and Washington has been hard pressed to protect its partners.
Damascus said the Syrian Kurdish groups "bear historic responsibility" for the U.S-Turkey deal and urged them to drop "this aggressive U.S.-Turkish project" and align with the Syrian government instead.
Syria has had no presence along the Turkish border since 2012, when Syrian rebels and Syrian Kurdish groups took control of different parts of the region.
After three days of talks in Ankara and repeated Turkish threats of a military incursion in northeast Syria, Turkish and U.S. officials agreed Wednesday that the coordination center would be based in Turkey and would be set up "as soon as possible," according to the Turkish defense ministry.
The ministry did not provide further details but said the sides had agreed that the safe zone would become a "corridor of peace" and that all additional measures would be taken to ensure the return of refugees to Syria.
Turkey has been pressing to control — in coordination with the U.S. — a 19-25 mile deep zone within Syria, east of the Euphrates River, and wants no Syrian Kurdish forces there.
In two previous military incursions, Turkey entered northwestern Syria, expelling Islamic State militants and Syrian Kurdish fighters from the area and setting up Turkish military posts there, with allied Syrian opposition fighters in control. Turkish troops also man observation points that ring the last opposition stronghold in the northwest — posts that are meant to uphold a now fraying cease-fire.
The deal to create a safe zone comes as fighting in northwest Syria resumed after efforts to salvage a Russia- and Turkey-backed cease-fire crumbled.
Syrian government forces have maintained an intense air campaign that has enabled their troops advance in recent days.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 49 air raids were recorded by early afternoon Thursday in 10 locations, while more than 380 government mortar and artillery shells were fired.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said troops have captured the village of Sakhr and a nearby hill a day after they captured another village to the southeast. The government resumed its offensive Monday, accusing the insurgents of violating terms of a revived truce.
On Thursday, the U.N.'s special envoy to Syria said the collapse of the cessation of hostilities deal was "regrettable." Najat Rochdi said in a statement that many civilians who had returned home because of the lull are now "at great risk" because heavy attacks resumed.
The U.N. said more than 500 civilians have been killed since the escalation in fighting in late April. More than 440,000 were forced to flee their areas, becoming displaced in the already crowded area that is home to 3 million people.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Beirut.