Turkey vows to expand Syria offensive east to Iraqi border

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Friday to expand Ankara’s operation in a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria eastward, toward the border with Iraq.

In Vienna, the Syrian opposition and Russia agreed to a ceasefire to halt the fighting over the besieged eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, an area the UN has called the “epicentre of suffering” in the war-torn country.

The agreement, confirmed to The Associated Press by opposition official Ahmad Ramadan, is contingent on Russia compelling the government to allow aid flow to the suburbs, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. Russia is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Rebels gave the government 24 hours to comply, said Ammar Hassan, spokesman for the Islam Army, one of the factions fighting inside the area. The government did not sign the agreement, said opposition adviser Omar Kouch.

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A Syrian boy holds an oxygen mask over the face of an infant at a make-shift hospital following a reported gas attack on the rebel-held besieged town of Douma in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on Jan. 22. (Hasan Mohamed/AFP/Getty Images)

The eastern Ghouta area has seen more than two months of violent fighting since rebels tried to ease a choking government blockade that has depleted food and medical supplies.

The UN reported in November that child malnutrition in eastern Ghouta was at the worst ever recorded throughout the seven years of civil war. It estimates there are around 400,000 people trapped under the government’s siege.

Conditions deteriorated precipitously after pro-government forces choked off the last smuggling tunnels leading to the opposition-held suburbs in May.

A “de-escalation” agreement brokered by Russia, Iran, and Turkey in August failed to bring any relief. The government and rebels eased up on their fighting but the government refused to allow aid into eastern Ghouta contravening the agreement.

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Syrian children look at a building that was damaged in a missile attack on the rebel-held besieged town of Arbin, in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of Damascus, on Jan. 18. (Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP/Getty Images)

Fighting erupted again in November, leading the government to pound the enclave with airstrikes and artillery fire without distinguishing between civilian and military targets. Rebels have responded with waves of shelling on Damascus. At least 286 civilians have been killed in the crossfire in the last month alone, according to figures from the Observatory.

The agreement, the latest in a long line of short-lived truces for Syria, was announced on the second and last day of a UN-mediated round of peace talks in the Austrian capital. Another round, mediated by Russia, starts in Sochi on Monday.

‘No one should be disturbed by this’

Erdogan said the Turkish forces’ push into Afrin would stretch further east, to the Syrian Kurdish town of Manbij, and toward the border with Iraq “until no terrorist is left.”

Erdogan’s latest comments appeared to be in defiance of the United States, which has urged Turkey to keep its campaign in Syria “limited in scope and duration” and to focus on ending the war.

Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish forces, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, to be a terrorist group because of their purported links to Kurdish insurgents within Turkey’s own border.

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Syrian Kurds hold banners and olive branches during a demonstration outside of the UN office in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region, against a military operation by the Turkish army against the Kurdish YPG forces in Syria’s Afrin, on Jan. 23. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Manbij is held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is dominated by the YPG. U.S. troops are not present in Afrin but are embedded with the SDF in other parts of Syria, where they are working to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State group.

“We will clear Manbij of terrorists …. No one should be disturbed by this, because the real owners of Manbij are not these terrorists, they are our Arab brothers,” Erdogan said, “From Manbij, we will continue our struggle up to the border with Iraq, until no terrorist is left.”

Proximity to U.S. soldiers

Ankara’s push into Manbij would put Turkish troops in proximity to U.S. soldiers there.

Erdogan remarks came on the seventh day of the Turkish incursion into Afrin, which started last Saturday.

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U.S. forces take up positions on the outskirts of the Syrian town, Manbij, a flashpoint between Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters and U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, on March 7 in al-Asaliyah village, Aleppo province, Syria. (Arab 24 network/Associated Press)

Meanwhile, Turkey’s Health Minister Ahmet Demircan said Friday that the operation into Afrin had led to 14 deaths on the Turkish side. Three Turkish soldiers and 11 Syrian opposition fighters allied with them were killed in fighting since Jan. 20, he said. Some 130 others were wounded.

The SDF said the first week of Turkey’s incursion had left more than 100 civilians and fighters dead. The group said in a statement Friday that among the dead are 59 civilians and 43 fighters, including eight women fighters. At least 134 civilians were wounded in the weeklong clashes, it added.

Turkey’s military said at least 343 “terrorists” have been “neutralized” during the campaign, a figure the Syrian Kurdish militia dispute.

In his speech, Erdogan slammed the U.S. alliance with the Kurdish forces in Manbij and other parts of Syria.

“Our greatest sadness is to see these terrorist organizations run wild holding U.S. flags in this region,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan’s talk with Trump

Erdogan said President Donald Trump asked him “not to criticize us so much” during their telephone call on Wednesday.

“Okay,” said Erdogan, citing what he allegedly told Trump in the conversation. “But how can a strategic partner do such a thing to its strategic partner?”

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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling party members in Ankara, Turkey, Friday. Erdogan has vowed to extend a Turkish cross-border offensive in northern Syria eastward along the border up to the frontier with Iraq. (Yasin Bulbul/Pool/Associated Press)

Erdogan also accused the Syrian Kurdish militia of using civilians as human shields in Afrin to try and slow down the advance of the Turkish forces and of the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters.

He also criticized calls by U.S. and other allies for a quick resolution of Turkey’s incursion, saying military interventions in places in Afghanistan and Iraq lasted for several years.

Late Thursday, the Pentagon described Turkey’s military operations in Afrin as not helpful and threatening to damage the ongoing fight against Islamic State militants in Syria.

Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. said the U.S. is clearly tracking movement by Turkey but downplayed the chances of American forces being threatened in the vicinity of the town of Manbij.

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