ANKARA, Feb 17 – Turkey wants a secure strip of territory 10 km (6.2 miles) deep on the Syrian side of its border, including the town of Azaz, to prevent attempts to “change the demographic structure” of the area, Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan said on Wednesday.
Syrian government forces backed by Russian air strikes have advanced towards the Turkish border in a major offensive in recent weeks. Kurdish militia fighters, regarded by Ankara as hostile insurgents, have taken advantage of the violence to seize territory from Syrian rebels.
Turkey has accused the Kurdish militia of pursuing “demographic change” in northern Syria by forcibly displacing Turkmen and Arab communities. Ankara ultimately fears the creation of an independent Kurdish state occupying contiguous territories currently belonging to Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
“There is a game being played with the aim of changing the demographic structure. Turkey should not be part of this game,” Akdogan said in an interview on the AHaber television station.
“What we want is to create a secure strip, including Azaz, 10 km deep inside Syria and this zone should be free from clashes,” he said.
Azaz is the last rebel stronghold before the border with Turkey north of the Syrian city of Aleppo, part of what was, before the Syrian government offensive, a supply route from Turkey to the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
It has come under heavy assault in recent days, but Turkey has said it will not let the town fall into the hands of the Kurdish YPG militia.
Turkey, home to more than 2.6 million Syrian refugees, has long pushed for the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria to protect displaced civilians, avoiding the need to bring them into Turkey.
But the proposal has so far gained little traction with Washington or NATO allies who fear it would require an internationally patrolled no-fly zone which could put them in direct confrontation with Assad and his allies.
Akdogan said another 600,000 people could flee to the Turkish border if Aleppo falls to the Syrian army.