Turkey targeting terror, not ethnicity in Syria - defence minister

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Sunday that Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria is a counter-terrorism effort and does not target specific ethnicities.

Ankara does not have a problem with Kurds, but rather terrorist organisations such as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and their Syrian offshoot, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), NTV quoted Akara as saying in a speech he delivered at the 19th Doha Forum held in Qatar.

“We don’t have any problems with Kurds or any other ethnicity,” the Turkish defence minister said.

"YPG/PKK can never represent Kurds, like Daesh cannot represent Islam. Kurds are our brothers and sisters. We will never allow the formation of a terror corridor in the south of our borders but a safe zone," he added.

Turkey and allied rebels are accused of ethnic cleansing against Kurds in northeast Syria, where the forces in October launched an offensive targeting the YPG.

Ankara sees the group, which has spearheaded the U.S.-led war on the Islamic State (ISIS) as an existential threat due to their links to PKK, an armed group that has been fighting for Kurdish-self rule in Turkey for decades. 

The military operation broke the Kurdish forces’ hold over northeastern Syrian territories bordering Turkey, and has placed a 32 km deep zone between the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn under Turkish control. Turkey plans to resettle up to 2 million mainly Arab Syrian refugees in the area. 

Extremist groups pose a threat not only to their own countries, but also to the international community, Akar said, adding that every weapon given to the YPG was transferred to the PKK.

The Turkish defence minister went on to say that Ankara warned the international community not to wage a war on ISIS through the use of another terror group, referring to the YPG.

Turkey does not seek to change the demographic structure in the region, or perform an ethnic cleansing on Kurds, Akar said.

Turkey only aims to protect all civilians regardless of their ethnic background, the region and the civilian infrastructure in Syria, Akar added. 

The Turkish defence minister also spoke on Ankara’s position on NATO and purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system.

“We are still at the centre of NATO,” Akar said. “We are not going anywhere.”

Turkey’s decades-long membership in the alliance has come under question particularly due to its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence systems.

U.S. Officials maintain that Russian missile system would allow Moscow to gather sensitive data on NATO aircraft’s defences and in July removed Turkish companies from the joint manufacturing programme of the F-35 fighter jets.