US and Turkey make third joint flight over northeastern Syria: EUCOM

US and Turkish forces carried out a joint reconnaissance flight on Thursday as part of a new security plan in northeast Syria, the US European Command (EUCOM) announced.

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) - US and Turkish forces carried out a joint reconnaissance flight on Thursday as part of a new security plan in northeast Syria, the US European Command (EUCOM) announced.

According to the US military, it was the third such flight in the past two weeks.

statement released on Friday by EUCOM read that the flight “follows the establishment of the combined joint operations center (CJOC) last month and demonstrates continued commitment to address Turkey’s legitimate security concerns on their southern border.”

On Aug. 7, Washington and the Ankara agreed on a new security mechanism designed to address specific concerns of Turkey, which wants areas along its border to be cleared of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the group that provides the military leadership for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), against which it has fought in a decades-long conflict over Kurdish rights in Turkey. 

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The EUCOM statement added that the new plan “maintains security in northeast Syria so ISIS cannot reemerge, and allows the coalition to remain focused on achieving the enduring defeat of ISIS.” 

On Wednesday, US troops and local Kurdish forces conducted a joint patrol near the Turkish border outside the town of Ras al-Ayn, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and a Kurdish news agency.

The US-led coalition previously stated that the SDF had started removing fortifications and withdrawing forces and heavy weapons away from the Turkish-Syrian border in support of the new security plan. Mustafa Bali, the head of SDF’s media office, said on Tuesday that coalition and SDF forces carried out a reconnaissance patrol that day near the city of Tal Abyad to identify additional positions to withdraw from. 

“The people of NE [northeastern] Syria are making the Security Mechanism a safe place to live,” Bali said, adding, “The SDF and the Coalition will maintain a close friendship to make the agreement last.” 

Despite this, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued last week to threaten that his military would launch a unilateral offensive into northeastern Syria if Turkish demands for a so-called “safe zone” were not met within three weeks.

Moreover, Reuters reported on Thursday that Erdogan said he planned to settle one million refugees in northern Syria if there is not sufficient support for the safe zone.

The SDF has repeatedly called on those displaced from northeastern Syria to return, but considering past events, it is wary that Turkey will seek to engineer a major population shift by transferring Syrian Arabs into the zone to divide Kurdish-majority areas in Turkey from those in Syria.

After Turkey occupied the northwestern city of Afrin in March 2018, it settled thousands of Syrian Arabs there who been displaced from other areas by Syrian regime offensives. Since thousands of Kurds from the city remain displaced from their homes, the demography of Afrin was substantially altered by Turkey and armed groups on the ground it backs.

Both the US and the SDF have said they oppose the forced return of Syrians into a safe zone or elsewhere.

“So it’s the U.S. position that we do not support any sort of forced or coerced relocations of refugees or IDPs,” US State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in early August.

“If and when conditions allow any refugee who wants to return to their destination, it must be of their own choosing and must be voluntary, safe, and dignified,” she added.

Senior Syrian Kurdish official Aldar Xelil told Sharq al-Awsat that the local Kurdish leadership has “no problem if the Syrians in Turkey return to the autonomous regions. They have the right to live here.”

Washington-based Kurdish Affairs analyst Mutlu Civiroglu told Kurdistan 24 that bringing people back to Syria by displacing others was not an acceptable choice and that it would “make it harder to make a peaceful solution to the ongoing civil war.”

“I think it’s right for people from SDF-controlled regions to return to their homes. But bringing people from different parts of Syria [to] settle them in someone else’s homes and properties is not a solution,” he said.

“People of the region are worried that [what] happened in Afrin may happen there.”

Editing by John J. Catherine