The U.S. and Turkey are set to begin joint ground patrols in a planned buffer zone in northeast Syria on Sunday, Turkey’s defense minister Hulusi Akar said on Friday, September 6.
“We plan to start the joint ground patrols on September 8,” Akar said, the state-owned Anadolu news agency reported. “There is a general agreement on which we expect the activities to be carried out at a certain sequence and pace.”
A U.S. Department of Defense spokesperson did not confirm that there are plans to imminently conduct ground patrols, but said the U.S. will be “working closely with Turkey to conduct missions over the weekend as part of our commitment to swiftly implement the security mechanism and address security concerns along the border.”
“This is part of our efforts working together to secure the border area in a sustainable manner, ensure campaign continuity in the Global Coalition’s efforts to defeat ISIS, and limit any uncoordinated military operations that would undermine this shared interest,” Pentagon spokesperson Commander Sean Robertson told The Defense Post via email.
Turkish and U.S. officials reached a preliminary deal on August 7 to establish the security zone along Syria’s northeastern border to manage tensions between Turkey and elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of militias backed by the U.S.-led Coalition to defeat ISIS.
The two sides began coordinating via a joint operations center in Turkey in late August.
The U.S. and Turkey have already conducted three rounds of joint helicopter patrols over northeast Syria, U.S. European Command said in a separate Friday release. Akar said unmanned aircraft were also being used in air patrols.
Syria’s predominately Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which form the core of the SDF, began withdrawing from the area near the Turkey border as part of the agreement.
The Turkish government has been threatening for months to launch a unilateral incursion into northeast Syria to clear the border area of the YPG militia, unseat affiliated political figures and resettle Syrian refugees who are currently in Turkey.
Turkey considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey and the U.S.
The U.S. does not consider the YPG a terrorist organization, and has depended on the group to drive the SDF, the Coalition’s primary ground force against ISIS in Syria.
Turkey’s objections to U.S. support for the YPG have severely strained the two NATO allies’ relationship.
A significant number of U.S. Special Operations Forces, alongside some British and French troops, remain in Syria’s northeast.
Erdogan said Thursday his government intends to use the buffer zone to re-settle “at least one million” Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey, and threatened to “open the gates” for refugees into Europe if the U.S. does not facilitate this plan.
SDF commander Mazlum Abdi has said refugees originally from northeast Syria are welcome to return to the area, but rejected Turkish proposals to deploy troops on the Syrian side of the border.
Turkey has launched two previous incursions into northern Syria, taking control of parts of Aleppo province along its border during Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016, and later taking control of the mainly Kurdish Efrin enclave during 2018’s Operation Olive Branch, which led to mass civilian displacement.
The border deal is expected to closely mirror one for the city of Manbij in northern Syria. The U.S. and Turkey previously agreed in June 2018 to conduct joint patrols around SDF-controlled Manbij and that the YPG would leave the area which borders the territory captured during Operation Euphrates Shield. Ankara has long accused Washington of stalling on that agreement.
Joanne Stocker contributed reporting.