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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Erdogan says Turkey will 'lay siege' to Afrin 

Comments came despite Syrian regime saying its forces will enter rebel area

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan poses for photos with children in commando uniforms as he addresses the members of his ruling party at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. Burhan Ozbilici /AP
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan poses for photos with children in commando uniforms as he addresses the members of his ruling party at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. Burhan Ozbilici /AP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday said his forces would soon besiege the Syrian town of Afrin as a cross-border offensive targeting a Kurdish militia enters its second month.

On January 20, Turkey launched an air and ground operation supporting Syrian rebels against the People's Protection Units (YPG) in the Afrin region of northern Syria.

Mr Erdogan's government views the YPG as a Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.

"In the coming days, swiftly, we will lay siege to the centre of the town of Afrin," he told parliament.

But the operation is likely to be further complicated by reports from the Syrian state news agency SANA that pro-government forces are expected to enter Afrin to counter the Turkish offensive.

While some analysts say Turkey and pro-Ankara Syrian rebels have made slow advances, Mr Erdogan defended the operation's progress, saying it was to avoid putting the lives of both its troops and civilians needlessly at risk.

"We did not go there to burn it down," he said, insisting the operation's aim was to "create a safe and livable area" for Syrian refugees inside Turkey, who fled across the border after the conflict began in 2011 and who now number more than three million.

The Turkish army says 32 of its troops have been killed.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor, Syrian rebels and Turkish forces have taken 35 villages since the start of the operation, most of them bordering Afrin.

And Turkish security expert Abdullah Agar said troops involved in operation "Olive Branch" had captured around 300 square kilometres (120 square miles) of territory.

Over the past month, 238 Olive Branch fighters - among them both Turkish soldiers and Syrian rebels - have been killed, along with 197 YPG fighters and 94 civilians, Observatory figures show.

Ankara strongly denies there have been any civilian casualties.

Jana Jabbour, a political science professor at Sciences Po university in Paris, said the Turks were "struggling to move forward" because of the "organisation of the Kurdish YPG forces and their combativeness".

She said it was important to distinguish between political rhetoric, "even political propaganda", and the reality on the ground.

On the ground, Turkish fighting was now focused around the area of Arab Wiran in northeast Afrin, the Observatory said.

If captured, pro-Ankara forces would control 50 continuous kilometres of Afrin's northern border with Turkey.

In what appeared to be a thinly-veiled threat to Damascus, Erdogan on Tuesday warned Turkey would brook no interference from outside forces.

"We will block the way of those who come to help from outside the city or the region," he said.

The Turkish operation has strained already-difficult ties with Washington which has given weaponry to the YPG as part of its fight against ISIL jihadists in Syria.

The US has called on Turkey to show restraint, warning that the offensive risked diluting the fight against the jihadists.

Mr Erdogan has also threatened to expand the offensive to the YPG-held town of Manbij.

When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Ankara last week, the two sides agreed to work together in Syria and set up working groups on issues like Manbij where American troops are operating and which the US diplomat described as a "priority".

In addition to its disagreements with the US, Turkey must take into account the interests of Russia, a key Damascus ally, which controls northern Syrian airspace.

Moscow may have consented to the offensive, but it has previously closed the airspace to Turkish jets after a Russian plane was shot down in an area of north Syria where Turkish military observers were expected to enforce a de-escalation zone.

The offensive is broadly supported in Turkey where political parties, media and clerics speak in unison, against a backdrop of nationalist rhetoric led by Erdogan.

Only the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) does not back the operation.