Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that Ankara is open to the idea of conducting a joint military operation with the US to free the Islamic State group’s stronghold of Raqqa.
Erdogan told a group of journalists accompanying him on his flight back from the G-20 Summit in China that his US counterpart Barack Obama is looking for joint action with Turkey inside Syria, and that Ankara is happy to take part.
“Obama wants us to do something together about Raqqa in particular,” he said, refering to the northern Syrian town that is considered IS’s headquarters in the country.
“We told him there wouldn’t be a problem on our part. Let our soldiers get together and they can do whatever is necessary,” Erdogan told the reporters.
Ankara sees the opportunity for cooperation with the US as a chance to kill two birds with one stone that will both hit Islamic State (ISIS) and Kurdish militias. Turkey has recently launched an incursion 40 kilometers into Syria in order to create a buffer zone between the Kurdish-held areas to the east and west of Islamic State’s) base in Raqqa.
Ankara sees the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey lists as a terrorist organisation.
The US and EU also list the PKK as a terrorist organisation, but the US sees the PYD and YPG as its main allies on the ground against IS.
Concrete proposals for action will have to be worked out separately, Erdogan added. “But at this stage we have to show our presence in the region,” he said. “We do not have the chance to take a backward step. If we take a backward step terror groups like ISIS, PKK, PYD and YPG will settle there,” stressed the Turkish leader, who considers the Kurdish forces fighting IS in Syria to also be terrorists.
Erdogan’s remarks came as a surprise since Turkey’s desire to implement a no-fly zone over northern Syria was rejected by the US on Tuesday.
“We do not think a no-fly zone would resolve the fundamental issues on the ground because there continues to be fighting on the ground,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s national security adviser, told reporters in Laos.
“A no-fly zone would necessarily only be contained to one specific area, and we have problems and violence across the country,” he added.
The Pentagon also expects the Kurds to get onboard with the Raqqa operation, according to Reuters.
When asked if ongoing US cooperation with the Kurds would be a stumbling block, Erdogan said he didn’t consider it to be a problem, pointing to Turkey’s latest operation (Euphrates Shield), which has gone smoothly so far. “We worked very comfortably in al-Rai. We did so in Jarablus, and are still doing so,” the Turkish leader said, adding that a joint plan of action with the US had been worked out last year on the sidelines of the last G20 summit, which was held in Antalya, Turkey. That plan allegedly involved an incursion zone in Syria of 40-95 kilometers.