Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to continue military action to rid Syria of US-allied Kurdish militias, despite a warning from Washington for Turkey not to risk a clash with its forces in the region.
Turkish operations continued Wednesday against Kurdish militants in Afrin, a Kurdish-held enclave in north-western Syria.
But, in a telephone call with Erdogan, US President Donald Trump urged the Turkish leader to “avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces” and emphasized the “shared goal” of the lasting defeat of the Islamic State terrorist movement, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
Trump “relayed concerns” that the escalating violence in Afrin “risks undercutting our shared goals in Syria,” Sanders added.
Operation “Olive Branch” in Afrin, a Kurdish-held area close to the Turkish border, was launched on Saturday. Erdogan said the plan is to now extend the mission to Manbij, a city captured from the Islamic State movement in 2016 by Kurdish-led forces, backed by the US.
A Kurdish official told dpa that US soldiers remain inside Manbij. Analysts have cautioned that the area could be a flashpoint in already strained relations between Washington and Ankara.
“Starting with Manbij, we will destroy this game along our borders and completely cleanse our region of this mischief,” Erdogan said, vowing to “exterminate the terrorists.”
Erdogan said 268 “terrorists” in Afrin have been neutralized – a term Ankara uses to refer to their removal from the battlefield, usually through death.
The main Kurdish militia in the area, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), has not verified the casualties and reported only several of its fighters killed.
Erdogan said the Turkish Army and allied Syrian rebels had lost seven or eight fighters in the ongoing offensive. The operation is aimed at enabling 3.5 million refugees in Turkey to return to Syria, he said.
Human rights observers claim that there have been more than a dozen civilian casualties. Turkey denies hitting any civilians.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in its latest death toll report that some 125 people were killed over the last five days in the Afrin region, among them Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.
The group said that 28 civilians, including eight children, were among those killed. Kurdish officials placed the civilian death toll higher.
Late Wednesday, in the Turkish border town Kilis, a Turkish civilian and a Syrian were killed by rocket fire that originated in Syria, local broadcasters reported. Earlier this week, a Syrian refugee was killed by a similar strike.
Shervan Derwish, a spokesman for the Manbij Military Council, said his forces are on “full alert” in case Turkey moves on the city, where US-led coalition forces are still present.
“We are in constant contact with coalition forces, who are conducting patrols on the front lines and aerial patrols – their troops are still in Manbij,” Derwish told dpa by phone.
He accused Turkey of waging an offensive aimed “against the Kurdish people.”
Manbij is located to the east of Afrin. In between the two cities lies a Turkish-controlled zone.
The US has supplied weapons to the Syrian Democratic Forces to battle Islamic State forces, angering Turkey, which sees the YPG as more of a threat due to its links to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group.
US officials have yet to offer clarity on their stance on the Turkish operation on Afrin, other than expressing concern it could lead to volatility and risks complicating the battle against Islamic State, while also supporting Ankara’s right to security.
In their Wednesday call, Erdogan and Trump also welcomed the return of more than 100,000 refugees to Syria after the defeat of Islamic State forces. They also “discussed the need to stabilize a unified Syria that poses no threats to its neighbours, including Turkey,” the White House said.
On Thursday, Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl plans to meet in Istanbul with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, seeking a return to “positive dialogue” and restoration of normal relations after recent tensions between Vienna and Ankara.