North Syria standoff 'incredibly sensitive', U.S. spox says as Turkey sends more troops

Turkish defence minister Hulisi Akar and top commanders of the Turkish armed forces on Thursday held a meeting after a series of discussions with a U.S. delegation led by Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey on the latest developments in northern Syria, state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

Akar's words have been widely interpreted in Turkish media as referring to a possible cross-border operation into northeast Syria if discussions on the safe zone do not progress.

"We expressed all our views and proposals to the delegation. We expect them to review these proposals and give their answers immediately. We once again stressed that we cannot tolerate a delay and we will take the initiative if necessary." the agency quoted Akar as saying.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus touched on Akar's statement on Thursday evening, calling the situation "incredibly sensitive" due to the presence of U.S. troops.

"This is an incredibly sensitive issue. We have American troops present there. We all continue to work closely with Turkey. Ambassador Jeffrey is working very hard on this issue of the safe zone with Turkey," Ortagus said.

Jeffrey's arrival coincided with Turkey's intensive deployment of troops and equipment near the Syrian border, including heavy weapons, armoured vehicles and tanks, signalling the possibility of an assault on the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) which forms the backbone of U.S. allied forces in the fight against the Islamic State.

Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed group fighting for Kurdish self-rule in southeast Turkey for more than three decades. 

Ankara and Washington agreed on June 4, 2018, on a roadmap for the withdrawal of Syrian Kurdish militias from Manbij, an area to the east of the Euphrates river, and the establishment of a new civilian council by local residents.

However, Turkey has long criticised the United States for halting the process and failing to meet the deadline. Ankara had expected the Manbij roadmap to be completed by the end of 2018.

Meanwhile, Ankara and Washington have been negotiating the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria along the Turkish border after U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly announced last year his intention to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. No concrete steps have yet been taken on the safe zone. 

The Turkish defence minister said Ankara has informed the U.S. delegation about its views and proposals regarding the planned safe zone and Manbij roadmap, according to Anadolu Agency.