Turkey and the United States appeared to be inching closer Wednesday to establishing a purported safe zone in Syria, administered by a planned joint operations center. The area would be a "peace corridor," the countries wrote in joint statements, aimed at helping "our displaced Syrian brothers to return to their country."
The announcement came after three days of talks in the Turkish capital of Ankara and after months of stalemate, stemming from disagreements over the zone's size and manager.
The U.S. had proposed a two-tier zone 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) deep, less than half the size Turkey had wanted. Turkey had also requested ultimate authority over the area, control that the U.S. would be unlikely to grant.
Wednesday's announcement did not address these two points of disagreement, but it did appear to head off a new influx of Turkish troops into northeastern Syria. Turkey wants to clear the area of Syrian Kurds, whom it considers terrorists connected to a rebellious Kurdish movement in Turkey.
Syrian Kurds make up the majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the U.S. has partnered with in the fight against the Islamic State terror group. Disagreement over the role of Syrian Kurds is straining the U.S.-Turkey partnership, with Turkey asking the U.S. to cut its ties to the Syrian Kurds.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar had threatened an attack earlier if a safe zone agreement feel through.
The joint statement by the Turkish Defense Ministry and the U.S. Embassy in Turkey said that the measures would be implemented promptly "to address Turkey's security concerns," but did not specify whether the Kurdish fighters would be cleared from northeastern Syria.
The move could bring tensions to a breaking point.
Kurdish leader Padran Jia Kurd told the Reuters news agency Wednesday, "We want a political solution and dialogue, but if these regional and international efforts are exhausted, then we will be in total, grave military confrontation."
In a separate statement, 11 Kurdish groups condemned what they called a Turkish "occupation" of Kurd-controlled land, accusing the government in Ankara of "amassing" troops and establishing outposts along the border, and "making calculations for a permanent occupation." The statement was released by news agency Arbil Kurdistan, which is thought to have ties to the Kurdish regional government.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said this week it would be "unacceptable" if Turkey did begin clearing Syrian Kurdish troops, but he did not guarantee them protection.
The Syrian civil war has been raging for more than eight years, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing more than 13 million people in and outside the country. Government forces announced this week that the army would restart an offensive on the northwestern Idlib province, the last major rebel stronghold. Three months of airstrikes and shelling have killed more than 2,000 people on both sides and displaced an additional 400,000.