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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Erdogan says Afrin capture not end of military campaign

Turkish president vows to 'eliminate this corridor' in northern Syria, with a wider offensive against Kurdish militia

Civilians fleeing the city of Afrin arrive in the village of Az Ziyarah, in the regime-controlled part of the northern Aleppo province. George Ourfaliam / AFP Photo
Civilians fleeing the city of Afrin arrive in the village of Az Ziyarah, in the regime-controlled part of the northern Aleppo province. George Ourfaliam / AFP Photo

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Monday to expand Turkey's military campaign in Syria to other Kurdish-held areas, a day after pro-Ankara fighters ousted rival militias from their enclave of Afrin.

He described the city's capture as merely a "comma" and also warned that Turkey could launch a surprise attack on Kurdish rebel strongholds in Iraq. The comments came as other Turkish officials insisted there was no intention to permanently occupy the northern Syrian city.

Red Cross officials, however, expressed doubts about Turkey's intentions and demanded access. The United States State Department also called for humanitarian organisations to be allowed into the city.

In the disorder that followed the taking of Afrin, at least 11 people were killed on Monday and there was looting of shops. Turkey blamed the deaths - seven civilians and four Free Syrian Army fighters - on a bomb it said was planted by terrorists, saying it exploded while Turkish-led fighters conducted a search of a building, following the expulsion of Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units) forces from the city. Up to 350,000 residents have fled since an air and ground offensive began on January 20.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, warned on March 19, 2018, that Ankara could launch a surprise attack on Kurdish rebel strongholds in Iraq. Kostas Tsironis / Bloomberg
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, warned on March 19, 2018, that Ankara could launch a surprise attack on Kurdish rebel strongholds in Iraq. Kostas Tsironis / Bloomberg

Turkey considers the YPG to be an extension of the militant PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) that is fighting an insurgency on its home territory. Mr Erdogan's forces could now head toward Qamishli, the most easterly Syrian town held by the YPG close to the Iraqi border.

"Now we will continue this process until we entirely eliminate this corridor, including in Manbij, Ayn al-Arab, Tel-Abyad, Ras al-Ayn and Qamishli," the Turkish president said, in a speech in Ankara.

Manbij, the next main YPG-held town east of Afrin is a particular flashpoint as there is a US military presence there, raising the risk of confrontation between the Nato allies.

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The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor based in Britain, meanwhile, said the Turkey-allied fighters had been looting Afrin since they took control of the area and raised their flags in the city centre on Sunday.

The incoming troops faced little resistance from the Kurdish militia, who withdrew but vowed a "new phase" of guerrilla tactics against Turkish troops and their allies.

A Turkish-backed Arab fighter tows away looted items in the Syrian city of Afrin on March 18, 2018. Bulent Kilic / AFP
A Turkish-backed Arab fighter tows away looted items in the Syrian city of Afrin on March 18, 2018. Bulent Kilic / AFP

The Observatory, which has a network of activists on the ground, described extensive looting of shops, homes and cars.

Syrian opposition leaders and Kurdish officials criticised the ransacking, on Monday.

Mohammed Alloush, a key figure in the Jaish Al Islam rebel group, said that stealing private and public property was a crime.

"All those who took part in this decadence need to have their hands slapped hard," he said on Twitter.

Turkey has previously said that its next territorial target would be a Syrian region further east where US forces are stationed alongside the YPG – Washington's ally against ISIL in the country.

"The objective of our operation is to cleanse the region of terror, to restore peace, trust and stability in a strong way, and to return the region to its rightful owners," Turkey's deputy prime minister Bekir Bozdag said on Monday. "We are not staying permanently in Afrin. We are not an occupier at all," he told reporters in Istanbul.

The National
The National

In a statement on Monday, the State Department said the US had "repeatedly expressed our serious concern to Turkish officials regarding the situation in Afrin".

"The United States calls on all relevant actors operating in the north-west, including Turkey, Russia and the Syrian regime, to provide access for international humanitarian organisations, facilitate the urgent delivery of humanitarian assistance to those displaced by the violence, and develop a co-ordinated programme for the safe and voluntary return of people to their homes in Afrin city as soon as possible," it said.

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), stressed the need to help those remaining in Afrin, warning that access had already been difficult before the Turkish takeover.

"Now with the combat operation we have a big number of people displaced," he said in Geneva, after a two-week trip to the Middle East, including war-ravaged Syria.

While advocating for access, Mr Maurer acknowledged that the national Turkish Red Crescent Society, which would be best placed to go in, would have difficulty working with Kurdish civilians following Ankara's military operations.

"The credibility of a Turkish Red Crescent working in Afrin with the Kurdish population is close to zero," he said, stressing the need for the ICRC itself to go into the city.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini criticised Turkey over its offensive in the city and called on Ankara to ensure the fighting eases in the war-torn country.

"I am worried about this," she said in Brussels, adding that international efforts in Syria were supposed to be aimed at "de-escalating the military activities and not escalating them".

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