The Associated Press TAL ABYAD, Syria (AP) — Turkish and U.S. troops conducted their first joint ground patrol in northeastern Syria on Sunday as part of a so-called “safe zone” that Ankara has been pressing for in the volatile Kurdish-administered region.
Turkey hopes the buffer zone, which it says should be at least 30 kilometers deep, will keep Syrian Kurdish fighters away from its border. Turkey considers these Kurdish militias a threat, but they’ve also been key U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State group.
The presence of Turkish troops inside Kurdish-administered areas is a major development in the conflict along the border. Over the past four years, Washington has often had to play the role of arbiter, trying to forestall violence between its NATO ally Turkey and its local Syrian partners, the Kurdish-led fighters.
So far, the Kurdish-led forces have withdrawn as deep as 14 kilometers from the border and have removed defensive positions, sand berms and trenches.
The depth of the zone, as well as who will control it, is still being worked out.
Several Turkish armored vehicles with the country’s red flag crossed into Syria where U.S. troops were waiting for them. About half a mile away, more U.S. armored vehicles flying the American flag waited for the patrol to begin. Associated Press journalists in the area around the village of Tal Abyad on Sunday saw the vehicles linking up, with the U.S. vehicles leading the 12-vehicle convoy.
With local farmers and children looking on, the convoy then drove through the rolling Syrian countryside, a patchwork of green farms and dry scrubby grassland. The joint patrol ended after two and a half hours, with four stops along the way in villages near the border.
Local commuters patiently waited while the convoy blocked traffic.
“We don’t know what this will do. We will see,” said one onlooker.
The Syrian government, which withdrew from the area in the chaos of war after the conflict erupted in 2011, condemned the joint patrol Sunday and labeled it “an aggression.”
Even as the patrol was taking place, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said serious differences remained with the Americans.
“Our negotiations with the United States on the safe zone are continuing but we see with every step that what we want and what is in their head is not the same thing,” he said.