ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey is waiting to see the outcome of U.S. President Donald Trump’s pledge to order safe zones in Syria, and has long advocated such a plan, Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu said on Thursday.
Trump said on Wednesday he “will absolutely do safe zones in Syria” for refugees fleeing violence. According to a document seen by Reuters, he is expected to order the Pentagon and State Department in the coming days to craft such a plan.
“We have seen the U.S. President’s request for conducting a study. What’s important is the results of this study and what kind of recommendation will come out,” Muftuoglu told reporters at a briefing in Ankara.
“Setting up of safe zones is something Turkey has advocated from the start. The best example is in Jarablus,” he said, referring to a town near the Turkish border that was freed from Islamic State by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels last August.
Turkey launched a military incursion into Syria in August, sending in special forces, tanks and warplanes in a bid to drive Islamic State out of a corridor of border territory and prevent Kurdish fighters from seizing ground in their wake.
The offensive, dubbed Euphrates Shield, drove the jihadists from the last 100-km (62-mile) strip of border territory they still controlled and created what Turkish officials have already been referring to as a “de facto safe zone”.
A new Syrian police force trained and equipped by Turkey started work in Jarablus on Tuesday, a sign of deepening Turkish influence in the stretch of land now controlled by Turkish-backed rebels.
Turkey has long supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a complex, multi-faceted conflict. The war has divided Syria into a patchwork of areas controlled by Kurdish militias, Islamic State and various rebel groups.
Turkey and Assad’s two main allies - Russia and Iran - backed peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana this week and are guarantors of a fragile ceasefire. But the process threatens to be derailed after a powerful jihadist group crushed an FSA faction over recent days.
Asked about attacks by the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham jihadist group, formerly known as the Nusra Front, on the FSA, Muftuoglu said some elements in Syria may be frustrated by progress made at Astana and may seek to disrupt the ceasefire.
It was incumbent on guarantor countries, which include Turkey, Russia and Iran, to prevent that from happening, Muftuoglu said. He also rejected suggestions that Turkey had dropped its opposition to Assad remaining in power, saying the Syrian leader had no place in the country’s future.
Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Humeyra Pamuk