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Turkey and US reach agreement on Syria safe zone, averting offensive

The two sides will immediately establish a joint operations centre in Turkey to coordinate and administer the area in northern Syria, says Turkish Defence Ministry
A convoy of Turkish armoured vehicles drive towards Bab al-Hawa crossing point between Syria and Turkey (AFP)

Turkey and the US have reached an agreement to establish a joint operations centre in order to establish a safe zone in northern Syria, the Turkish Defence Ministry announced on Wednesday, averting a Turkish military offensive on the neighbouring country for now.

The statement, which was released following three days of meetings between Turkish officials and a visiting US military delegation, said both sides agreed to a "rapid implementation of initial measures" to address Turkey's security concerns. 

The operation centre will be based in Turkey, but Middle East Eye understands that the safe zone will be coordinated and managed by both countries.

"Subsequently, the safe zone should become a peace corridor and any additional measures should be taken for our Syrian displaced brothers to return to their country," the statement added.

A statement released by the US embassy in Turkey confirmed the news, echoing the same language.

Speaking at a news conference in Ankara on Wednesday alongside his Ukrainian counterpart, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that talks with the US had progressed in a "really positive" direction.

The process regarding the safe zone would begin with the operation centre being formed, he said, as reported by Reuters.

"What really mattered here was the issue of this step being taken on the east of the Euphrates, and this is now being realised together with the Americans," Erdogan said.

The US and Turkey have been at odds for months over the creation of a safe zone, with the latter unhappy at the presence of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) near the border.

The group has fought alongside US forces against the Islamic State militants, but is seen in Ankara as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), who have fought a decades-long guerilla war with Turkey.

The Turkish lira strengthened following the announcement, which comes after Defence Minister Hulusi Akar's earlier comments that the US was shifting closer to Ankara's views on the safe zone.

"Our plans, preparations, the deployment of our units in the field are all complete. But we said we wanted to act together with our friend and ally, the United States," he was quoted as saying earlier on Wednesday by Anadolu Agency.

'A concrete roadmap'

Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert at the Ankara-based Centre for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM), said the statement on the safe zone indicates that both sides made progress in their latest round of discussions.

"It seems the US military delegation came up with a proposal that is satisfying for Turkey. The main points of disagreement were on the depth of the zone and the levels of control in it. It is likely that the US made some concessions on the depth," Orhan said.

"It also suggests that the Turkish military will have a more serious role and existence in the zone compared to the past discussions. We can say that Turkey's military threats were effective to unlock the stalemate in diplomatic channels."

A Turkish source who is close to the Turkish government urged caution, recalling the stalled implementation of the roadmap for Manbij brokered between the two countries last year.

Turkey contends that the US didn't honour its promise to clear the YPG out of the city.

"We need details and a concrete roadmap. Otherwise, this is vague," he told MEE, speaking anonymously due to the sensitive topic.