BEIRUT — The U.S.-led coalition and Turkey conducted Friday their third joint patrol in northeastern Syria, they said, part of a plan designed to defuse tensions between Washington’s two allies, Ankara and the Syrian Kurds.
The patrol followed a telephone call late Thursday between Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in which Akar reiterated that Turkey won’t accept a delay in the creation of what it calls “a safe zone” and would act alone if necessary to set it up.
Akar also told Esper that Turkey would end the joint patrols “if there are distractions, delays” and urged the U.S. to end its support to Syrian Kurdish fighters, according to a statement from the Turkish Defense Ministry.
Ankara views Syrian Kurdish fighters as an extension of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey and wants to move them away from the Turkey-Syria border. It has repeatedly threatened to carry out a military operation to push the Kurdish fighters back.
Turkey had carried out military incursions with allied Syrian groups in western Syria to drive out Kurdish fighters, as well as Islamic State militants, and has stationed troops there.
But a Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria would carry a larger risk, bringing Turkish soldiers into a zone where at least 1,000 U.S. troops are deployed.
Akar told his U.S. counterpart that Turkey “would not allow the establishment of a terror corridor to its south,” according to his statement.
The coalition said the patrol went ahead as planned and Turkey’s Defense Ministry said it was in an area east of the town of Tal Abyad.
Washington says the deal reached in August aims to address Turkey’s security concerns.
So far, fighters from the most prominent Syrian Kurdish group _ the People’s Protection Units or YPG _ have moved away from border posts.
But Turkey remains unhappy with the size of the area it calls a “safe zone.” It also wants some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to return there.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told parliament that Turkey plans to settle 2 million refugees in the zone and will hold a donors' conference to help build homes and infrastructure for them.
It was not clear how Turkey planned to move the largely Sunni Arab Syrians it is hosting from many parts of Syria into the Kurdish-dominated region, and whether the U.S. is on board.
Separately, Turkey-backed Syrian fighters in northwestern Syria announced they have united into one group called The National Army. The restructuring brings together fighters present in Idlib and Hama provinces and the coastal area who formerly operated under the National Liberation Front, and those in rural Aleppo.
Mustafa Sejari, a National Army commander, said there are now about 100,000 fighters operating under the Turkey-backed national army.
Since 2016, Turkey has been training Syrian fighters who took part in Turkish military incursions in northwestern Syria and are now part of the Ankara-backed administration there.
The unification could also set the stage for a possible confrontation with Idlib’s dominant Jihadi groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, HTS or Huras al-Din.
“This certainly exasperates HTS,” said Sejari. “We face many tasks internally, regarding HTS or externally to ward off Syrian government forces if they try to enter Idlib or violate the cease-fire.”
Idlib is the last area held by opposition fighters, without foreign power presence. Syrian government troops have been carrying out a military offensive there, but a cease-fire has brought a lull to the fighting.
It was not clear how the new opposition forces restructuring would affect government plans.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.