Turkey's defense minister says planned elections by Syrian Kurdish groups are 'unacceptable'

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Plans by U.S.-backed Kurdish groups to conduct local elections in northern Syria are “unacceptable” and a threat to Turkey’s national security, Turkey’s defense minister said Monday.

Turkey considers the move as a step by Syrian Kurdish groups toward the creation of a separate Kurdish entity across its borders. Ankara accuses the Syrian Kurdish groups of ties to a banned Kurdish militant organization.

In a written reply to questions from The Associated Press, Yasar Guler reiterated Turkey’s commitment to establishing a secure corridor along its borders with Syria and Iraq to counter the threat posed by Kurdish militants.

A Kurdish-led autonomous administration that controls northern and eastern parts of Syria has announced plans to hold municipal elections June 11. The vote to choose mayors will be held in the provinces of Hassakeh, Raqqa, Deir el-Zour and the eastern part of Aleppo province.

“It is not possible to accept such a situation,” Guler said. “The so-called election efforts that threaten the territorial integrity of Syria will negatively affect peace and tranquility in the region."

“We will not allow any fait accompli that is to the detriment of our national security and the territorial integrity of our neighbors,” he added. He did not elaborate on what action Turkey could take if the Kurdish groups proceed with the elections.

Turkey has launched a series of major cross-border operations into Syria since 2016 to drive away a Kurdish militia group, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, from its border and now controls parts of northern Syria.

Turkish jets, drones and artillery now regularly target suspected militants in northern Syria, and in northern Iraq, where the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has a foothold.

The PKK, which has led a decades long insurgency against Turkey, is considered a terror organization by Turkey and its Western allies. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people since the 1980s.

Guler told the AP that 63% of Turkey’s border with Syria border was currently “under control.”

“We are fully determined to create a 30-40 kilometer (19-24 miles) deep security corridor along our borders with Iraq and Syria," Guler said. "Our aim is to eliminate the attacks and threats by members of the terrorist organization from the other side of the border against our citizens and troops.”

Turkey was now carrying out “continuous and comprehensive” operations against the PKK, instead of launching offensives like it did in the past, which he said were limited in terms of “targets and time."

Guler also hailed greater security cooperation from Baghdad, which earlier in the year issued a ban on the PKK, although it stopped short of designating it a terrorist organization.

“For the first time, Iraq sees the PKK as not only Turkey’s problem but also its own problem,” Guler said. “We expect it to be declared a terror organization at the shortest time possible.”

Touching on efforts by Turkey to modernize its air force, Guler said Turkey and the U.S. were closer to concluding the procedures for the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, following the Turkish government’s ratification of Sweden’s membership in NATO.

Turkey requested to buy the F-16s in 2020 after its expulsion from the U.S.-led F-35 stealth jet program over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system.

Guler said talks with the United States over Turkey’s potential return to the F-35 project were continuing but he ruled out any possibility of Turkey disposing of the S-400s.

“It is out of the question for the S-400s, which we procured within the scope of our country’s long-range regional air and missile defense system needs, to be given to another country,” Guler said.

Turkey is also engaged in talks with the United Kingdom and Spain to buy Eurofighters jets, although Germany has objected to the sale.

“It is unacceptable for us to be subjected to export restrictions by our allies,” Guler said. “These restrictions not only affect us, but also the capability and defense investment targets that NATO has set for the allies.”

He said the initial batch of 20 of Turkey’s indigenous TF-X Kaan fighter jets, which completed its second test flight last month, would be integrated into the Turkish air force between 2027 and 2029.