By Gozde Bayar
ANKARA (AA) - Turkey is ready to launch another operation in Syria to secure its borders by eliminating terrorist elements to ensure the safe return of Syrian refugees and Syria’s territorial integrity.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Sunday that Turkey is ready to launch "Operation Peace Spring" east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria to clear the region of terrorists.
"It is maybe today or tomorrow the time to clear the way for [our] peace efforts which is set and the process for them was started,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan reiterated that his country aims to establish peace east of the Euphrates River by purging the Syrian region from terrorists.
"Turkey backs the territorial integrity of Syria and the political and administrative unity of Syrians,” he said earlier.
He added that the only reason for Turkey’s presence in Syria is that the terror threat towards its borders has turned into a barrier which is preventing the return of Syrians.
"Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, we have supported the territorial integrity of this country, and we will continue to support it," said Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Turkey has no designs on any country's territory, said presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, referring to a possible operation in northern Syria.
"As part of Syria's territorial integrity, the safe zone plan has two purposes: to secure our borders by eliminating terror elements and to ensure the safe return of refugees," Kalin added.
Syria has been locked in a vicious civil war since early 2011, when the Bashar al-Assad regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and more than 10 million others displaced, according to UN officials.
Turkey has been the main route for refugees trying to cross to Europe since 2011, when the civil war in Syria began.
- Establishment of safe zone in northern Syria
Turkey has long championed the idea of terrorist-free safe zones in Syria and stressed ridding the area of the terrorist YPG/PKK, the Syrian branch of the PKK, as well as resettling Syrian migrants currently in Turkey.
In its more than 30-year terror campaign against Turkey, the PKK -- listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union -- has been responsible for the deaths of some 40,000 people, including women, children, and infants.
Since 2011, over 5 million civilians have become refugees, and Turkey hosts over 3.6 million of them, being the country hosting the highest number of refugees in the world.
The country stressed that forming a safe zone is essential for eliminating the PKK-YPG terror threat and for the safe return of Syrian refugees to their country.
Turkey considers the Syrian refugee issue a humanitarian issue and will let Syrians safely return to their homes.
Erdogan said Turkey planned to settle 2 million Syrians in a 30-kilometer-wide safe zone to be set up in Syria starting from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border, including Manbij.
Cavusoglu voiced displeasure that a planned safe zone could not be established and accused the U.S. of not keeping its promises in northern Syria due to its engagement with the PKK/YPG terror group.
Turning to ongoing efforts to establish a safe zone, Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said if Turkey encounters any stalling or misconduct by the U.S., Turkey could set up the zone by itself.
Kalin also discussed the safe zone issue with several U.S. envoys such as U.S. special envoy for the anti-Daesh coalition James Jeffrey, National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien and former national security adviser John Bolton.
On Aug. 7, Turkish and U.S. military officials agreed to set up a safe zone in northern Syria and develop a peace corridor to facilitate the movement of displaced Syrians who want to return home. They also agreed to establish a joint operations center.
U.S. and Turkish troops carried out their first joint ground patrol for the zone on Sept. 9.
While Turkey welcomes the joint patrols, it has also said the U.S. is not doing enough to set up the safe zone properly.
Erdogan described the land and air patrols carried out with the U.S. as “nothing but a tale.”
He also said that a total of 360,000 Syrians had returned to areas cleared of terrorists with Turkey's anti-terror operations.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday reiterated his administration's commitment to pulling back troops from Syria.
"The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the [Turkish] operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS [Daesh] territorial 'Caliphate,' will no longer be in the immediate area," the White House said late Sunday.
- Turkish operations
Since 2016, Turkey’s Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations in northwestern Syria have liberated the region from YPG/PKK and Daesh terrorists, making it possible for Syrians who had escaped the violence to return home.
Operation Euphrates Shield, which was launched on Aug. 24, 2016, is in line with the country’s right to self-defense borne out of international treaties.
Turkey’s operation was a response to terrorist attacks on Turkish soil and artillery fire by Daesh militants in Syria on targets inside Turkey. Daesh carried out rocket attacks and suicide attacks especially on large provinces of Turkey from Daesh-held territory in Syria.
The Daesh-controlled territory comprised a roughly 100-kilometer borderline in the Azaz-Jarablus region of northern Syria which is located 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the Turkish-Syrian border.
With this operation, Turkey aimed to prevent the PKK from forming a terror corridor stretching from west of the Euphrates River to Syria’s northwestern Afrin district and to ensure the security of the line between Azaz city and town of Cobanbey in Syria's Aleppo province near the Turkish border by eliminating terror elements.
Afrin has been a major hideout for the PYD/PKK since July 2012 when the Assad regime left the city to the terror group without putting up a fight.
“Right now, unfortunately, all the attacks which happened in Gaziantep and Kilis... brought this issue to this point,” said President Erdogan when the operation was launched.
“You cannot divide our nation. You cannot lower our flag. You cannot smash up our homeland, our state. You cannot silence our call to prayer. You cannot bring this county to your knees. You cannot bring to heel these people,” Erdogan added.
Erdogan also said that his government wants to build settlements in the safe zone for Syrian refugees in Turkey to return to their country, or for those in Syria who seek to flee the ongoing bloodshed.
“The aim of the Jarablus operation is to clear all terrorist elements, including Daesh and the YPG,” said presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.
Kalin stressed that necessary steps will continue to be taken to protect Turkey’s border security and Syria’s territorial integrity.
- Operation Olive Branch
The Turkish General Staff announced on Jan. 20, 2018 Operation Olive Branch had been launched in Syria’s Afrin district to establish security and stability on its borders and region, to eliminate terrorists of the PKK/KCK/PYD-YPG and Daesh and to save its friends and brothers from the terrorists’ oppression and cruelty.
The operation was conducted under the framework of Turkey’s rights based on international law, UN Security Council decisions, especially no. 1624 (2005), 2170 (2014) and 2178 (2014), and as per the right to self-defense under Article 51 of the UN charter, while being respectful to Syria’s territorial integrity.
Turkey informed the regime in Syria through a written note to prove that the country was acting in accordance with international law.
"We are not occupying Afrin. On the contrary, we are trying to make it a livable place for the real owners while clearing out terrorists from there,” said Erdogan, reiterating its aim to build peace in the region.
Erdogan said the operation was a "clear warning" to those who did not want to understand Turkey's determination in the fight against terrorism.
"After clearing them [terrorists], we will hand the region over to its real owners; namely, we will hand it over to Syrians,” said Cavusoglu.
Kalin reiterated that Turkey’s priority during the operation is to maintain security at its borders and to secure the lives and property of its citizens.
“Operation Olive Branch is directed only against terrorist groups, not any ethnic group,” Kalin added.
The operation only targeted terrorists and their shelters and weapons and material belonging to them, said the Turkish General Staff. It said the operation will also take sensitivity into account and no civilian/innocent person would be harmed.