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Turkey and US agree on Syria safe zone

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(Xinhua/Turkish Presidential Palace)

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey and the United States agreed on Wednesday to establish a joint operation center in Turkey to coordinate and manage a planned safe zone in northeast Syria, a move that appeared to reduce the chance of imminent Turkish military action.

The two countries gave few details of the deal, which followed three days of talks between military delegations and months of stalemate over how far the safe zone should extend into Syria and who should command forces patrolling it.

The proposed zone aims to secure a strip of land stretching more than 400 km (250 miles) along Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey, much of it controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia that fought with US support against Islamic State militants.

Ankara sees the YPG as terrorists who pose a grave security threat and has demanded that the United States sever its ties with the Kurdish militia.

Turkey has twice sent forces into northern Syria in the last three years to drive back YPG and Islamic State fighters from the border, and President Tayyip Erdogan had said on Sunday a third incursion was imminent, targeting YPG-controlled territory east of the Euphrates river.

Speaking at a news conference in Ankara on Wednesday, Erdogan said that talks with the United States had progressed in a “really positive” direction.

The process regarding the safe zone would begin with the operation center being formed, he said.

“What really mattered here was the issue of this step being taken on the east of the Euphrates, and this is now being realized together with the Americans,” he said.

The two countries, allies in NATO, said they agreed on the “rapid implementation of initial measures to address Turkey’s security concerns”.

They also said the safe zone should be a “peace corridor,” and that every effort would be made so that Syrians displaced by war could return to their country.

Neither side said whether they had overcome two main points that had divided them.

Washington has proposed a two-tier safe zone, with a 5-kilometer (3-mile) demilitarized strip bolstered by an additional 9 km (5.6 miles) cleared of heavy weapons – stretching in total less than half the distance into Syria that Turkey is seeking.

Turkey has also said it must have ultimate authority over the zone, another point of divergence with the United States.

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