ISTANBUL - Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Friday that Turkish forces would intensify their operation into Syria if Kurdish militias failed to comply with an agreement struck with the United States. The warning was made as sporadic fighting continued and disputes emerged over the cease-fire terms.
On Thursday, Erdogan and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence agreed that Turkey would end its operation against the YPG Syrian Kurdish militia if it withdrew 32 kilometers from the Turkish border.
Under the agreement, a 120-hour suspension of hostilities would be observed by Turkish forces to allow the militia to withdraw. Last week, Turkish forces allied with Syrian rebels launched an offensive against the YPG, which Ankara considers terrorists. The militia was a key ally in the Washington-led war against Islamic State.
But reports of heavy fighting continued between Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkish armed forces and Syrian rebels, despite the temporary cease-fire.
"Turkish army forces and their affiliated jihadist groups indiscriminately continue airstrikes and artillery attacks on Serêkanîyê [Ras al-Ayn]," said SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali in an interview with VOA's Kurdish service. The YPG is the main component of the SDF, which is a coalition of forces made up of Arabs and Kurds.
"Despite the cease-fire, clashes have not stopped in Serêkanîyê," he added. "Our forces are responding to these attacks within the framework of legitimate self-defense."
But Ankara downplayed the reports. "There are no clashes. These [reports of clashes] are disinformation," Erdogan said to local reporters Friday.
Analysts say Ankara has a vested interest in the deal with Washington succeeding, given its being heralded as a diplomatic triumph.
"We got everything we wanted. ... It was as easy negotiation as we've ever had," reported Turkish media, quoting an unnamed presidential official.
"The wording, the text of the statement is clearly a diplomatic win for President Erdogan — both on the home front and abroad as well," said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served in the region and Washington.
The U.S.-Turkey deal not only secures the withdrawal of the Kurdish militia but creates what Erodgan calls a "safe zone" in Syria under Turkish army control.
Turkey's military operation into Syria aims to create a buffer zone, around 450 kilometers long and 30 kilometers deep. However, the published U.S.-Turkey agreement does not identify the size of the safe zone.
"For the U.S., the safe zone is 120 km by 30 km," said Selcen, "whereas for Turkey, it is still the 450 km-by-30 km area from Jerablus to the Iraqi border."
General Mazloum Kobani, head of the Syrian Democratic Forces, claims a much more limited withdrawal had been agreed to with Washington. With SDF forces withdrawing from Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad and the 100 km territory between the towns, Kobani is tying further withdrawals to more talks.
Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad witnessed the most severe fighting since the start of Turkey's operation. The distance between the towns is about 100 km.
However, Erdogan issued a warning Friday: "If promises [given by the U.S.] are not fulfilled, our operation will continue the minute the 120th hour ends, and it will be intensified," he said in comments to reporters.
Syrian Kurdish leaders are voicing concern about the lack of detail in the U.S.-Turkey agreement over the safety and security of people living in the proposed safe zone, especially, analysts say, as Pence ruled out any deployment of U.S. soldiers to administer the safe zone.
Turkey's heavy reliance on Syrian rebels as part of its operation is heightening SDF concerns.
"It is a fact that the militia has committed crimes, and the way it has been used against Turkey claiming Turkey is committing genocide in the area," said Selcen. "It's very hard to discipline and to make use of these jihadi groups on the ground."
Ankara rejects claims of radical elements among the rebel forces. The government also insists any allegations of misconduct are investigated. Turkish officials repeatedly stress that the protection and safety of civilians is a priority.
Erdogan on Friday outlined plans to secure the proposed safe zone in a meeting with foreign reporters. The president said the Turkish army would protect the region, which would get 12 new observation posts.
Erdogan said securing of the area would eventually allow up to 2 million refugees to return, with the building of new villages and towns.
But with Syrian regime forces moving into the area of Turkey's proposed safe zone, after a military agreement with the SDF, analysts warn Erdogan's refugee resettlement plan remains in doubt.
"There are many questions for security questions over resettling refugees," said Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University,
"And of course the other issue with [Syrian leader] Bashar al-Assad's regime," he added. "The regime has to accept that Syrians will be deployed there in this area, as Turkey has foreseen."
Erdogan on Friday sought to play down any tensions with Damascus, saying there would not be a problem posed by the presence of regime forces in the safe zone. But the Turkish president also warned Turkey would respond if Damascus "made a mistake."
Analysts say Erodgan is walking a diplomatic tightrope given Damascus' main backer is Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a crucial ally of Erdogan in the region in efforts to end the Syrian civil war.
Putin and Erdogan are due to meet Tuesday in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. The meeting is predicted to be crucial to determining the success of Erodgan's Syrian plans.
"All eyes are now on the Erdogan-Putin meeting in Sochi next Tuesday," Selcen said.