Turkey is aiming to form safe zones in northern Syria so that Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey could return to their home country, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
Speaking in Istanbul on Monday, Erdogan also said nearly 300,000 Syrians had already returned to areas controlled by Turkish-backed rebels in northern Syria, adding that he expected millions of Syrian nationals to return to the proposed safe zones.
Turkey hosts about four million Syrian refugees.
US President Donald Trump announced in December the withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops from Syria and Erdogan subsequently said they had discussed setting up a 32km-deep safe zone in Syria along the border with Turkey.
On Friday, Erdogan said that Turkey expected the safe zone to be set up within a few months, otherwise, it would establish a buffer zone without the help of other nations.
He added that the zone will aim to protect Turkey from “terrorists”, referring to the US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia that controls areas in northeastern Syria along the Turkish border.
Ankara wants the zone to contain the fighters of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which the United States has armed and trained to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
The YPG is seen as an effective ground force by the US in the fight against ISIL, but Turkey says it is linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara and Washington list as a terrorist group.
Turkey’s foreign minister said on Thursday that Turkey has the capacity to create a safe zone in Syria on its own, but will not exclude the US, Russia, or others if they want to cooperate.
“Turkey has not forced refugees to go back to Turkey for years. However, around 300,000 refugees returned to areas held by Turkey and Turkey-backed rebels in northern Syria, such as Jarablus and Al-Bab,” Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javid, reporting from Gaziantep on Turkey-Syria border, said.
“And more refugee returns are only possible, according to Erdogan, if Turkey can have some sort of control from the west side of the Euphrates River until the Iraqi border.”
For months, Ankara has threatened to launch a new offensive in northern Syria to drive out the US-backed Kurdish fighters, following two other battles in the last three years.
Turkish forces shelled YPG positions in the northern Syrian region of Tal Rifaat last week, state media reported on Friday.
The YPG still controls the small region of Tal Rifaat, wedged between the area under Turkish control to the north and areas controlled by the Syrian government and anti-Syrian government rebels to the south.
It is just 20km west of Afrin, which was taken by Turkey and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies in an operation last year aimed at driving out the YPG militia.
The YPG has rejected the idea of a “security zone” set up by Ankara, fearing a Turkish offensive against territory under their control.
Erdogan and Trump have had several telephonic conversations to discuss the proposed security zone, as well as the US troop withdrawal from Syria.