By Ismail Ozdemir, Semra Orkan, and Etem Geylan
ISTANBUL (AA) – Turkey's prime minister has said that main goal of Turkey's Operation Olive Branch in northwestern Syria is to eliminate the terrorist groups there and ensure the safe return of hundreds of thousands of civilians from Afrin who took shelter in Turkey.
"Our goal in Afrin is to resolve the problem there, to remove the armed group from threatening innocent people in our country as well as there” in Afrin, Binali Yildirim said late Friday, speaking at a closed-door meeting organized by Istanbul’s Beyoglu Municipality.
“350,000 people took shelter in Turkey after fleeing Afrin. When we clean up the place they will go and settle there. This is our goal, very neat and clean."
He said the Turkish military operation had been launched to prevent the disintegration of Syria and protect the territorial integrity of the war-torn country.
"Turkey will continue to increase efforts in this regard," he said, adding that Ankara has delivered this message to its allies and regional neighbors, including Iran and Russia.
The aim of Operation Olive Branch is to protect Syria’s territorial integrity and prevent irreparable divisions, he said.
No solution in Syria is possible "without considering the territorial integrity" of the country, he said.
"Without this we could face chaos and turmoil … the disappearance of people. So territorial integrity is essential for a solution in Syria.”
“If we seek a solution without tending to Syria’s territorial integrity, we might regret it … I believe that all countries have come to this understanding, except one,” Yildirim said, referring to the U.S.
“But they will also understand,” he added.
He warned that a solution in Syria would not be an easy process, explaining: "At least 800,000 people have been massacred and over 10 million people have been displaced from their homes."
Yildirim also said all ethnic groups and the regime would participate in the solution process in Syria.
“If we pursue a solution in Syria by ignoring the regime, this chaos in Syria will continue for many years. So the regime will be included in the resolution process along with all ethnic groups in Syria,” Yildirim said.
But one group will not be included, said Yildirim.
The terrorists “who kill innocents cannot sit at any point of that [negotiating] table,” he added indicating the PYD/PKK terrorist organization.
"The PYD/PKK does not have a Kurdish problem, but the Kurds have a PYD/PKK problem," he added.
Asked if Turkey has a precondition to have direct contacts with the Bashar al-Assad regime, Yildirim said Turkey had indirect contacts with the regime.
“Turkey has no direct contacts with Assad. Regarding Afrin, we had low-profile contacts through Russia.”
On Jan. 20 Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch to remove PYD/PKK and Daesh terrorists from Syria’s Afrin region.
According to the Turkish General Staff, the ongoing operation aims to establish security and stability along Turkey’s borders and the region as well as to protect Syrians from terrorist oppression and cruelty.
The operation is being carried out under the framework of Turkey’s rights based on international law, UN Security Council resolutions, its self-defense rights under the UN Charter, and respect for Syria's territorial integrity, it said.
The military also said "utmost importance" is being put on not harming civilians.
Afrin has been a major hideout for the PYD/PKK since July 2012 when the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad left the city to the terror group without a fight.