A Turkish-backed Syrian fighter near the town of Tal Hajar in Syria's northern Aleppo province on February 1. Photo: AFP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said Ankara maintained “low-level” contact through its intelligence service with the Syrian regime despite being one of its most vociferous critics.

Turkey fell out with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad following the 2011 crackdown on protesters, with the Turkish leader denouncing him as “killer Assad.”

Erdogan has ruled out any direct talks with Assad and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in December that Ankara was only in contact with Damascus through third parties, namely Russia and Iran.

Erdogan’s comments Sunday are the first time he has confirmed that there have been direct low-level talks with the Assad regime.

“Foreign policy is being conducted with Syria at a low level,” Erdogan told the state-run TRT television in an interview, adding that countries’ intelligence services 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 insurgents fighting the Assad regime.

US withdrawal plan

Asked about the US withdrawal plan, Erdogan said he hoped Washington would pull out its troops out of Syria soon.

If it fails to do so, he warned, Turkey would take action to avert the possible terror threat posed by Washington-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters.

“I hope [the US] will complete [the pullout] in a short period of time because we do not want to live under threat,” Erdogan said.

“Whenever we see any sign of a threat, we will do whatever is needed.”

– with reporting by AFP

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