March 30 (UPI) -- Turkey's prime minister said his nation's seven-month military incursion into war-torn Syria has ended, though it remains unclear whether the NATO ally will maintain its military presence over territory presently under its control.
Turkey announced in August it would send ground forces over the Syrian border to clear the region of fighters loyal to the Islamic State. The operation had the twin effect of halting a military campaign led primarily by Syrian Kurds, backed by the U.S. military. Turkey's government regards the Kurdish fighters known as the YPG as an extension of the militant Turkish Kurd group PKK, which Turkey and the United States have labeled terrorists. Turkish leaders feared the YPG, aided by the United States, would push west of the Euphrates River and link up with several other Kurdish tribes to form a semi-autonomous group similar to the province in northern Iraq that largely operates independent of the central government in Baghdad.
Turkey has its own significant Kurdish minority population that has at times found itself at odds with the government.
Turkey has not said how large its fighting force is in Syria and Yildirim would not say whether his country's military will retreat behind its border now that Islamic State fighters have been eradicated.
Turkish forces maintain control of the strategic town of Al Bab near the border, which had been under Islamic State control. In all, Turkey has control of about 1,200 square miles of territory inside Syria along its border.
Turkey has pressed the United States to disavow itself of the partnership it has formed with Kurds in the region. The United States is presently evaluating what strategic partnership to assemble in the fight to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa, the largest remaining Islamic State stronghold in the country. The Pentagon has been said to prefer continuing working with the Kurds, who have been the driving force behind successful campaigns in Syria and Iraq before.
Erdogan has pledged to sit out the Raqqa fight if the YPG is part of the military coalition.