ANKARA: Turkey on Wednesday warned it will launch a new operation in Syria within days against an American-backed Kurdish militia that Ankara considers a terrorist group, risking renewed tensions with NATO ally the United States.
Washington's relationship with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), seen as a key partner spearheading the fight against militants in Syria, is a major bone of contention between the US and Turkey.
Ankara has repeatedly lambasted Washington for providing military support to the militia and threatened to attack areas held by the YPG.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the plans for a new offensive a day after the Pentagon said observation posts were in place on the Syria-Turkey border to prevent altercations between the Turkish army and the militia.
"We will start an operation to free the east of the Euphrates from the separatist terrorist organisation in the next few days," Erdogan said during a speech in Ankara, referring to territory held by the YPG.
Turkey presses Syria offensive as rockets hit town
Turkey says the YPG is a "terrorist offshoot" of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.
The PKK is blacklisted as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.
"The target is never American soldiers but terrorist organisation members active in the region," Erdogan told the audience at a defence industry summit.
The Pentagon on Tuesday announced the posts' establishment on the northeast Syria border region despite calls from Ankara not to go ahead with the move.
Erdogan claimed Turkey was not being protected from terrorists but "terrorists were being protected" from possible action by Turkey.
In October, Turkey shelled YPG positions east of the Euphrates in the Kobane region.
Youssef Hammoud, spokesperson for a coalition of pro-Ankara rebels, said the aim of a new operation would be to remove the YPG from an area spanning Manbij to Tal Abyad.
American forces have worked closely with the YPG under the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance against the Islamic State (IS) group.
US forces have joined the SDF east of the Euphrates as well as in the flashpoint city of Manbij, west of the river.
In a bid to avoid any clash, the NATO allies agreed a "roadmap" for Manbij in June. In November, Turkish and American troops launched joint patrols in the northern city.
Putin and Erdogan to hold talks on Syria's rebel-held Idlib
Part of the agreement was that the YPG would leave Manbij and that the NATO allies would work together to establish a local security structure and decide who will govern.
But Erdogan on Wednesday said Turkey "still not got the result it wanted" in Manbij.
"There has been a delaying tactic undeniably used in Manbij, and right now it is still being used," he said, adding that the threat from IS no longer existed in Syria.
Hammoud said the different rebel groups "were informed a while ago" of a possible operation, adding that training supervised by Turkish officers had been underway.
Ankara has previously launched two operations in northern Syria. The first offensive began in August 2016 with Turkish forces supporting Syrian opposition fighters against IS and was completed by March 2017.
Then in January 2018, Turkish military forces backed Syrian rebels to clear the YPG from its northwestern enclave of Afrin.
In March, the operation was completed with the capture of Afrin city.
Erdogan has repeatedly warned Turkey would not allow "a terror corridor" to be formed on its border by the YPG.
Ties between Washington and Ankara have been tense over several issues in recent years including the detention of an American pastor who was released in October and the failure to extradite a US-based Muslim preacher blamed for the July 2016 failed coup against Erdogan.