Erdogan says Turkey keeping 'low-level' contact with Syria


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 President Bashar al-Assad following the 2011 crackdown on popular dissent, with Erdogan denouncing him as "killer Assad".

The Turkish leader has ruled out any direct talks with Assad and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in December 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 overthrow.

Asked about the U.S. 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 U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia.

"I hope (the U.S.) 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 in December by U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S., a NATO ally, to hand over the zone's security to Turkish troops.

Turkey is ready to run the "security zone" together with the U.S., he said but "we cannot leave it to coalition forces because we need to feel safe." Erdogan added: "We cannot trust coalition forces... they have neither troops to ensure security there nor logistical means."

The Turkish army has launched two major operations in Syria in 2016 and in 2018 to combat Syrian Kurdish fighters as well as Islamic State group jihadists.

The deployment of Turkish troops and their proxy forces in areas of northwest Syria has drawn accusations by some critics of a Turkish military occupation.

Erdogan, who visited Russia for talks over the "security zone" last month, also said he would meet President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on 14 February. Wading into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by a Saudi hit team in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate, last year, Erdogan accused the United States of "silence".

"I cannot understand America's silence.... We want everything to be clarified because there is an atrocity, there is a murder," he said. "The Khashoggi murder is not an ordinary one."

Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor and Saudi regime critic, was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 soon after he entered the compound to obtain paperwork for his upcoming marriage to a Turkish woman.

Riyadh described it as a "rogue" operation but denied any involvement by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The case has caused strains in the kingdom's ties with Washington.   (AFP)

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