ISTANBUL (AFP) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said his government maintained “low-level” contact through its spy agency with the Syrian regime despite being one of its most fervent critics.
Ankara fell out with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad following the 2011 crackdown on popular dissent.
The Turkish leader has ruled out any direct talks with Assad, and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last December that Ankara was only in contact with Damascus through third parties, namely Russia and Iran.
Erdogan’s comments on Sunday are the first time he has confirmed direct low-level talks with Damascus.
“Foreign policy is being conducted with Syria at low-level,” Erdogan told the state-run TRT television in an interview, adding that spy agencies could maintain links even if their leaders did not. “Even if it’s your enemy, you will not entirely break ties in case you might need them,” he said.
Turkey, home to nearly four million Syrian refugees, is backing rebels seeking Assad’s ouster.
Asked about the United States (US) withdrawal plan, Erdogan said he hoped Washington would pull out its troops out of Syria soon.
If not, he warned, Ankara would take action to avert the possible terror threat posed by US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia.
“I hope the US will complete the pullout in a short period of time because we do not want to live under threat,” Erdogan said.
“Whenever we see any sign of a threat, we will do whatever is needed,” he said.
Erdogan’s government welcomed a surprise announcement last December by US President Donald Trump that he was pulling around 2,000 American troops from the war-torn country. That has prompted Turkey to put on hold its plans to launch a military operation in Syria to drive out Syrian Kurdish militia deemed as “terrorists” by Ankara.
Turkey is pushing for a 32 kilometre “security zone” in Syria after receiving the US backing.
The “safe zone” or “security zone” would be on the Syrian side of the 900-kilometre Syria-Turkey border.
Erdogan showed the negotiated “security zone” on the map, during the live broadcast, which he said would stretch from Jarabulus in northern Syria to the Iraqi border.
And he urged the US, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, to hand over the zone’s security to Turkish troops.
Turkey is ready to run the “security zone” together with the US, he said but “we cannot leave it to coalition forces because we need to feel safe.”