Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that his military “won’t stop” trying to oust Syrian Kurdish fighters from northern Syria, as he met with the leaders of Russia and Iran for talks on trying to resolve the conflict.
The three countries, which have teamed up to work for a Syria settlement despite their differences, reaffirmed their commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity and the continuation of local cease-fires. They called on the international community to provide more aid for war-ravaged Syria.
Erdogan, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani were holding their second summit to discuss Syria’s future since attending a similar meeting in Sochi, Russia, in November. Russia and Iran have provided crucial support to President Bashar Assad’s forces, while Turkey has backed the rebels seeking to overthrow him.
Speaking at a joint news conference, Erdogan said Turkish troops, which last month took control of the northwestern Kurdish enclave of Afrin, would move eastward into Manbij and other areas controlled by the U.S.-backed militia, the Peoples’ Protection Units, or YPG, which Turkey considers to be terrorists.
“I say here once again that we will not stop until we have made safe all areas controlled by the (YPG), starting with Manbij,” Erdogan said.
He stressed that Turkey’s fight against the YPG would not distract from efforts to eliminate the remnants of Islamic State group from the country.
Wednesday’s summit came as the White House said its military mission to eradicate IS in Syria was coming to a “rapid end,” though it offered no timetable for withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops currently in Syria as part of an American-led coalition fighting the Islamic militants since 2014. President Donald Trump had said a day earlier that the U.S.’s primary mission was to defeat IS and “we’ve almost completed that task.”
With allies anxious about a hasty U.S. withdrawal, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that the U.S. would stay in war-torn Syria to finish off the job of defeating the Islamic State group and was committed to eliminating the militants’ “small” presence that “our forces have not already eradicated.”
But Sanders suggested that would not be a long-term endeavor, and she described the extremist group that once controlled vast swaths of Syria and Iraq as “almost completely destroyed.”
Trump’s comments conflict with views of his top military advisers, some of whom spoke at a separate event in Washington on Tuesday about the need to stay in Iraq and Syria to finish off the militant group, which once controlled large swaths of territory in both countries.
Asked about a possible U.S. pullout, Rouhani suggested Wednesday that the U.S. threat to withdraw from Syria was an excuse for soliciting money from countries that want U.S. forces to remain there.
“One day they say they want to pull out of Syria. … Then it turns out that they are craving money,” he said. “They have told Arab countries to give them money to remain in Syria.”
It was unclear what Rouhani was referring to. But Trump in recent weeks has asked Saudi Arabia to contribute $4 billion for reconstruction in Syria as part of his efforts to get other countries to help pay for stabilizing the country, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the conversations publicly.
Rouhani also reiterated that there can be no military solution to the Syrian crisis. “It should be resolved through political solutions,” he said.
Russia, Iran and Turkey have sponsored several rounds of talks between the Syrian government and the opposition, and brokered local truces in four areas, helping to reduce hostilities. Their next tripartite meeting will be held in Tehran.
Erdogan said the Turkish and Russian militaries were discussing the possibility of establishing field hospitals in Syria’s Tal Abyad town to care for people injured in the Syrian government offensive on the rebel-held Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta. “Be it the Turkish armed forces, be it the Russian armed forces, (we) want to quickly establish a field hospital so that initial treatment can be provided,” Erdogan said.
Meanwhile, the Russian military said Wednesday that it expects a rebel evacuation from the suburbs of the Syrian capital to be completed in the coming days.
The Russian Defense Ministry and Syrian rebels struck a deal on Sunday for the Army of Islam, the biggest opposition group in eastern Ghouta, to leave the area for the rebel-controlled north.
The rebels were still leaving the town of Douma, but the evacuation was expected to wrap up in the coming days, said Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian General Staff.
Earlier, Russia’s Defense Ministry said that more than 3,000 rebels and their family members had evacuated Douma since Sunday.
The evacuation comes after a blistering five-week government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds of people and caused catastrophic damage in the besieged suburbs.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman in Washington, Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Cinar Kiper in Istanbul and Amir Vahdat in Tehran contributed to this report.