Murad Sezer, Rodi Said
AKCAKALE, Turkey/TAL ABYAD, Syria (Reuters) – Armed Turkish military vehicles crossed into war-stricken Syria on Sunday to begin joint patrols with U.S. counterparts to establish a high-stakes “safe zone” along a border region controlled by Kurdish forces.
Vehicles with Turkish flags joined those in Syria with U.S. flags some 15 kilometers (nine miles) east of the Turkish border town of Akcakale, near Syria’s Tel Abyad.
With two military helicopters briefly overhead, they headed south for several hours before returning to Turkey.
The land patrol, which Damascus condemned, marks the latest sign of cooperation between the NATO allies east of the Euphrates even while thorny questions remain over the size and oversight of the safe zone.
Turkey aims to send some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it hosts to the zone.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is also anxious to show progress pushing back from its borders Kurdish YPG forces, U.S. allies that Ankara has labelled terrorists because it says they have links to Kurdish militants in Turkey.
The patrols would continue in coming days “without any delay for the withdrawal of terrorists and the return of Syrian people,” Turkey’s Defence Ministry said according to state-owned Anadolu agency.
Turkish officers accompanied by U.S. troops documented some of the YPG fortifications that had been demolished as part of an agreement that Ankara and Washington hashed out in recent months, a Reuters witness said.
Arab tribes mainly inhabit the proposed safe zone region controlled by the YPG forces. On Sunday, witnesses said residents in some of the villages emerged to greet and wave at Turkish troops on the joint patrol.
After intensive negotiations, Turkey and the United States have also set up a joint operation centre but have so far disagreed over how deep the zone would extend into Syria and over the command structure of the forces to operate there.
Turkey and the United States have conducted multiple joint helicopter patrols over the area. After eight years of war south of its border, Turkey hopes to resettle 1 million refugees in northern Syria.
Turkey is also involved in Syria’s northwest Idlib region where its troops and observation posts have come under pressure as Russian-backed Syrian government forces have pushed north in recent months. An escalation of conflict in recent weeks has strained Ankara’s ties with Moscow.
With U.S. backing over the last four years, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance that the YPG spearheads has taken control of much of northeastern Syria from Islamic State militants.
The SDF said the joint patrols are “part of a road map to attain stability in a way that contributes (its) efforts to pursue (Islamic State) and uproot them.”
The Syrian government on Sunday condemned the joint U.S.-Turkish patrols saying it was a “flagrant violation” of its sovereignty and “territorial integrity”.
Damascus has accused the Kurdish YPG of working towards separatism, a charge which the YPG denies.
Many of the inhabitants of the predominately Arab area that is expected to comprise the safe zone – including Tel Abyad, Ras al Ain and several Arab villages – had fled to Turkey fearing reprisals by the YPG on charges they had links to Islamic State.
Tribal leaders and rights groups accuse the ruling Kurdish militia of preventing many Arabs from returning to their former homes which they say in some cases have been confiscated and demolished, a charge the Kurdish YPG vehemently denies.
Kurdish leaders say they have long been victims of Arab discrimination.
Sheikh Mudar al Assad, a tribal figure from the region who lives in exile in Turkey, said he expected tens of thousands of displaced Arabs to return back to their homes once the safe zone was established.
“The mere presence of Turkish troops in this area has raised hopes of the return of many who have been exiled ,” al Assad said.