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Erdogan says Turkey keeping 'low-level' contact with Syria
[ISTANBUL] Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said his government maintained "low-level" contact through its spy agency with the Syrian regime despite being one of its most fervent critics.
Ankara fell out with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad following the 2011 crackdown on popular dissent, with Mr Erdogan denouncing him as "killer Assad".
The Turkish leader has ruled out any direct talks with Assad and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in December Ankara was only in contact with Damascus through third parties, namely Russia and Iran.
Mr Erdogan's comments Sunday are the first time he has confirmed direct low-level talks with Damascus.
"Foreign policy is being conducted with Syria at low-level," Mr Erdogan told the state-run TRT television in an interview, adding that spy agencies could maintain links even if their leaders did not.
"Even if it's your enemy, you will not entirely break ties in case you might need them," he said.
Turkey, home to nearly four million Syrian refugees, is backing rebels seeking Assad's ouster.
'WHATEVER IS NEEDED'
Asked about the US withdrawal plan, Mr Erdogan said he hoped Washington would pull out its troops out of Syria soon.
If not, he warned, Ankara would take action to avert the possible terror threat posed by US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia.
"I hope (the US) will complete (the pullout) in a short period of time because we do not want to live under threat," Mr Erdogan said.
"Whenever we see any sign of a threat, we will do whatever is needed," he said.
Mr Erdogan's government has welcomed a surprise announcement in December by US President Donald Trump that he was pulling around 2,000 American troops from the war-torn country.
That has prompted Turkey to put on hold its plans to launch a military operation in Syria to drive out Syrian Kurdish militia deemed as "terrorists" by Ankara.
Turkey is pushing for a 32km "security zone" in Syria after receiving the US backing.
The "safe zone" or "security zone" would be on the Syrian side of the 900km Syria-Turkey border.
Mr Erdogan showed the negotiated "security zone" on the map, during the live broadcast, which he said would stretch from Jarabulus in northern Syria to the Iraqi border.
And he urged the US, a Nato ally, to hand over the zone's security to Turkish troops.
Turkey is ready to run the "security zone" together with the US, he said but "we cannot leave it to coalition forces because we need to feel safe."
He said: "We cannot trust coalition forces... they have neither troops to ensure security there nor logistical means," Mr Erdogan said.
The Turkish army has launched two major operations in Syria in 2016 and in 2018 to combat Syrian Kurdish fighters as well as Islamic State group jihadists.
The deployment of Turkish troops and their proxy forces in areas of northwest Syria has drawn accusations by some critics of a Turkish military occupation.
Mr Erdogan, who visited Russia for talks over the "security zone" last month, also said he would meet President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on February 14.