ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that Turkey’s military “won’t stop” it’s efforts to oust Syrian Kurdish fighters from Syria’s north, as the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran met for talks on resolving the conflict in Syria.
The three countries, which have teamed up to work for a Syria settlement despite their differences, reaffirmed their commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity and the continuation of local cease-fires. They called on the international community to provide more aid for war-ravaged Syria.
Erdogan, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani were holding their second summit to discuss Syria’s future since attending a similar meeting in Sochi, Russia, in November.
Erdogan said Turkish troops, which last month took control of the northwestern enclave of Afrin, would move eastward into Manbij and other areas controlled by the U.S.-backed Peoples’ Protection Units, or YPG, which Turkey considers to be terrorists.
“I say here once again that we will not stop until we have made safe all areas controlled by the (YPG), starting with Manbij,” Erdogan said.
He stressed that Turkey’s fight against the YPG would not distract from efforts to eliminate the remnants of Islamic State group from the country.
Erdogan said the Turkish and Russian militaries were discussing the possibility of establishing field hospitals in Syria’s Tal Abyad to take care of people injured in attacks in the Damascus’ eastern Ghouta suburb. He also spoke of plans to establish bakeries to help feed those in need.
The three leader’s summit meeting came as the U.S. said its military mission to eradicate the Islamic State group in Syria was coming to a “rapid end” but offered no timetable for withdrawal. President Donald Trump had said earlier that the U.S.’s primary mission was to defeat IS and “we’ve almost completed that task.” He said Tuesday he wants to bring troops home to start rebuilding the U.S.
Trump’s comments conflict with views of his top military advisers, some of who spoke at a separate event in Washington about the need to stay in Iraq and Syria to finish off the militant group, which once controlled large swaths of territory in both countries.
Asked about the possible U.S. pullout, Rouhani said the United States’ move from Syria is an excuse for soliciting money from countries that want them to remain there.
Rouhani said: “One day they say they want to pullout of Syria …, then it turns out that they are craving money. They have told Arab countries to give them money to remain in Syria.”
Russia and Iran have provided crucial support to President Bashar Assad’s forces, while Turkey has backed the rebels seeking to overthrow him. The three nations have sponsored several rounds of talks between the Syrian government and the opposition, and brokered local truces in four areas, helping to reduce hostilities.
Meanwhile, the Russian military said Wednesday that it expects a rebel evacuation from the suburbs of the Syrian capital to be completed in the coming days.
The Russian Defense Ministry and Syrian rebels struck a deal on Sunday for the Army of Islam, the biggest opposition group in the Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta, to leave the area for the rebel-controlled north.
The rebels were still leaving the town of Douma, but the evacuation was expected to wrap up in the coming days, said Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian General Staff.
Earlier, Russia’s Defense Ministry said that more than 3,000 rebels and their family members had evacuated Douma since Sunday.
The evacuation comes after a blistering five-week government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds of people and caused catastrophic damage in the besieged suburbs.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Cinar Kiper in Istanbul and Amir Vahdat in Tehran contributed to this report.