Turkey’s capital Ankara is hosting the second meeting of a bilateral Turkish-U.S. group to coordinate the American troop withdrawal from Syria, a diplomatic source said Friday.
The Turkey-U.S. Joint Working Group, following its first meeting on Feb. 6 in the U.S., met Thursday for a gathering set to end today, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to restrictions on speaking to the media.
The U.S. pullout from Manbij, Syria and the area east of the Euphrates River — where Turkey has promised a counter-terrorist operation — topped the meeting.
The U.S. currently has more than 2,000 troops deployed in Syria, but announced last December that they were leaving, revised this week to say some 200-400 would stay.
The group meeting in Ankara is operating as a sub-unit of the Syria Working Group established in February 2018 between Turkey and the U.S.
After the meeting, neither side is expected to comment, but its contacts will continue in the days to come, according to participants at the meeting.
Getting weapons back from YPG/PKK
One of Turkey’s top concerns is that U.S., while withdrawing, takes back the weapons and ammunition it gave to the terrorist YPG/PKK, as it pledged.
In its more than 30-year terror campaign against Turkey, the PKK — listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU — has been responsible for the death of some 40,000 people. The YPG is the group’s Syrian branch.
The U.S. allied itself with the PKK/YPG to fight Daesh in Syria, but Turkey argued that using one terror group to fight another makes no sense.
Turkey also does not want former U.S. bases to fall into the hands of the terrorists after the withdrawal, saying they should either be destroyed or handed over to the Turkish army.
During negotiations in Ankara and Washington, Turkish officials said that if the U.S. troop withdrawal happens before a mutual agreement is reached in line with Turkey’s security concerns, Ankara would reserve its right to self-defense.
Since Washington declared the pullout in mid-December, Turkey has been warning of the power vacuum that the withdrawal could create in the region.
– Power vacuum
Once the U.S. pulls out from the field, Assad regime forces, Iran, and even Russian military police could enter the area unless an agreement with Ankara is reached beforehand.
Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said on Feb. 11 that the pullout is likely to begin within weeks and that he expects no increase in U.S. troops in Iraq.
But other officials said the pullout is expected to be completed by summer based on the situation on the ground.
On Feb. 13, acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said Washington will establish a multinational observer force to take its place in northeastern Syria.
A Turkish official, speaking anonymously due to restrictions on talking to the media, pointed out that Turkey is still a member of the U.S.-led coalition to fight Daesh.
The official said the U.S. intention to give Turkey a symbolic place in the coalition observer force is meant to prevent it from having a powerful military presence in northeastern Syria.
Turkey, however, plans to push the YPG/PKK at least 30-40 kilometers (18-24 miles) south of its border and take military measures to block the terror group.
Turkey plans to oppose figures linked to the YPG/PKK terror group taking posts in administrative units as part of joint U.S.-Turkey efforts in Manbij, northern Syria.