Turkish forces push deeper into Syria and draw US criticism

Washington expresses concern Turkish troops focusing on Kurds and not Isis

 Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan:  has vowed to devote equal energy to combating Islamic State jihadists and Syrian Kurdish fighters. Photograph: Syasin Bulbul/AFP/Getty

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan: has vowed to devote equal energy to combating Islamic State jihadists and Syrian Kurdish fighters. Photograph: Syasin Bulbul/AFP/Getty

 

Turkish-backed forces pushed deeper into northern Syria on Monday and drew a rebuke from Nato ally the United States, which said it was concerned the battle for territory had shifted away from targeting Islamic State (Isis).

At the start of Turkey’s now almost week-long cross-border offensive, Turkish tanks, artillery and warplanes provided Syrian rebel allies the firepower to capture swiftly the Syrian frontier town of Jarablus from Isis militants.

Since then, Turkish forces have mainly pushed into areas controlled by forces aligned to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition that encompasses the Kurdish YPG militia and which has been backed by Washington to fight the jihadists. A group monitoring the tangled, five-year-old conflict in Syria said 41 people were killed by Turkish air strikes as Turkish forces pushed south on Sunday. Turkey denied there were any civilian deaths, saying 25 Kurdish militants were killed.

‘Unacceptable’ action

“We call on all armed actors to stand down,” he wrote on his official Twitter account, citing a statement from the US department of defence.

Turkey, which is battling a Kurdish insurgency on its soil, has said its campaign has a dual goal of “cleansing” the region of Islamic State and stopping Kurdish forces filling the void and extending the area they control near Turkey’s border.

It has put Ankara at odds with Washington and adds to tensions when Turkey’s government is still reeling from last month’s failed coup, which it says Washington was too slow to condemn. US vice-president Joe Biden sought to patch up ties in a visit last week, just as Turkish forces entered Syria.

In a news conference on Monday with a visiting European official, Turkish European affairs minister Omer Celik said: “No one has the right to tell us which terrorist organisation we can fight against.” He did not, however, mention the US comments.

On Monday, Turkish-backed forces advanced on Manbij, a city about 30km (20 miles) south of Turkey’s border captured this month by the SDF with US help. The thud of artillery was heard from the Turkish border town of Karkamis.

Kurdish militia

Turkey has said its warplanes and artillery have bombarded positions held by the Kurdish YPG militia in recent days. It accuses the YPG of seeking to take territory where there has not traditionally been a strong Kurdish ethnic contingent.

“The YPG is engaged in ethnic cleansing, they are placing who they want to in those places,” Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in Ankara, demanding Kurdish forces withdraw east of the Euphrates river, a natural boundary with areas of eastern Syria under Kurdish control.

The YPG, a powerful Syrian Kurdish militia in the SDF that Washington sees as a reliable ally against jihadists in the Syrian conflict, have dismissed the Turkish allegation and say any of its forces west of the Euphrates have long since left.

“Turkey’s claims that it is fighting the YPG west of the Euphrates have no basis in truth and are merely flimsy pretexts to widen its occupation of Syrian land,” Redur Xelil, chief spokesman for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, told Reuters.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the US had demanded the YPG must cross back to the eastern side of the Euphrates but said Washington understood this had “largely occurred”.

Turkey has not spelled out if it plans to set up a “buffer zone” in the region where it is fighting in north Syria. The region lies between two Kurdish-controlled cantons – one east of the Euphrates and the other to the west near the Mediterranean.

Kurdish autonomy

On Monday, Turkey also launched air strikes on what it said were PKK targets in northern Iraq, a Kurdish-controlled region along another section of Turkey’s southern border and where the PKK has bases.

Turkish-backed forces say they seized a string of villages south of Syria’s Jarablus in a region controlled by groups aligned to the US- and Kurdish-backed SDF. They also say they have taken a few places to the west in Isis areas.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria’s conflict, said Turkish-backed rebels had seized at least 21 villages to the south and west of Jarablus since August 25th.

Syria’s conflict began in 2011 as an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Since then it has drawn in regional states and world powers, with a proliferation of rival rebel groups, militias and jihadists adding to the complexity. – (Reuters)