Turkey will not leave Syria until other countries pull out, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said, adding that Ankara will continue its cross-border offensive against Kurdish fighters until they have entirely left the region.
Turkey launched its third military offensive into northeast Syria last month to drive the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) armed group from its border and establish a “safe zone” where it aims to resettle up to two million Syrian refugees.
After seizing a 120-km (75-mile) swathe of land along the border, Turkey struck deals with the United States and Russia to keep the YPG, which Ankara labels “terrorists” due to its links with the outlawed Turkey-based PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), out of that area.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Erdogan said Turkey would only leave Syria once other countries have left as well, adding that the Turkish offensive would continue until all Kurdish forces leave the area.
“We will not let up until every last terrorist leaves the region,” Erdogan said, referring to the YPG, the main component of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“We will not leave here until the other countries get out,” he was cited as saying by broadcaster NTV.
Ankara began its offensive after Trump announced an abrupt withdrawal of 1,000 US troops from northern Syria last month. The US president has since said that some troops will continue to operate in the region.
Under deals with Washington and Moscow, Ankara paused its offensive in return for the withdrawal of the YPG fighters from its planned “safe zone”. While US and Russian officials have said the Kurdish fighters have left the region, Erdogan on Thursday accused Russia and the US of not fulfilling their part.
As a result of the deal Ankara struck with Moscow, Turkish and Russian troops have been holding joint patrols along the Turkish border with Syria.
During the third such patrol on Friday, a Syrian protester was killed when he was run over by a Turkish military vehicle, according to Kurdish forces and a war monitoring group.
The incident happened when the vehicle drove through a crowd of people protesting against the joint patrols. A spokesman for the SDF said Turkish troops had used tear gas against some civilian protesters.
Turkey’s defence ministry said in a statement that the third patrol was completed as planned along an 88-km (54.7-mile) route along the most easterly section of the border at a depth of 10km (6.2 miles).
Sending foreign ISIL fighters home
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said on Friday that Ankara will start sending foreign fighters back to their home countries next week.
“Now, we are telling you that we are going to send them back to you. We are starting this on Monday,” Soylu said in a speech in Ankara, referring to members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group.
Earlier this week, Soylu said Turkey had nearly 1,200 foreign members of ISIL in custody, and had captured 287 during its recent operation in northern Syria.
“We will send three, five, 10 people back,” Soylu said.
“There is no need to try to escape from it, we will send them back to you. Deal with them how you want,” he added.
Turkey has criticised Western countries for refusing to repatriate their citizens who left to join ISIL in Syria and Iraq, and stripping some of them of their citizenship.
It remains unclear whether Turkey will be able to repatriate those who have lost their citizenship.
Under the New York Convention of 1961 it is illegal to leave someone stateless, but several countries including the UK and France, have not ratified it. Recent cases have triggered prolonged legal battles.
The United Kingdom has stripped more than 100 people of citizenship for allegedly joining armed groups abroad.
High-profile cases such as teenage ISIL recruit Shamima Begum, and another alleged recruit Jack Letts, have sparked court proceedings and fierce political debate in the UK.
Senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), Letta Tayler, told Al Jazeera that it was not clear how European governments would react if Turkey goes ahead with its plans on Monday.
“Europe set itself up for this ultimatum by refusing to repatriate its nationals despite repeated pleas from the Kurdish-led authorities in northeast Syria for them to take home their citizens. Repatriation is something Europe should have done a long time ago and should do now. It should be working with Turkey to make this happen,” she said.
“It is much better from a humanitarian standpoint to evacuate these citizens especially given that many of them are children. From a security perspective, it is far better for Europe to monitor its citizens whether or not it has rejected them as citizens.”