© AFP/File / by Stuart Williams and Fulya Ozerkan | A Turkish boy waves to Turkish tank convoy driving into Syria from the border city of Karkamis in the southern region of Gaziantep, on August 26, 2016
ISTANBUL (AFP) – Turkey warned Monday it would carry out more strikes on a Syrian Kurdish militia if it failed to retreat beyond the Euphrates River, as Washington condemned their weekend clashes as “unacceptable”.
Turkish forces pressed on with a two-pronged operation inside Syria against Islamic State (IS) jihadists and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), shelling over a dozen targets.
But strikes against the YPG are hugely sensitive as the Kurdish group — seen as a terror group by Ankara — is allied with Turkey’s NATO partner, the United States, in the fight against IS in Syria.
Ankara said it had killed 25 Kurdish “terrorists” in strikes on YPG positions on Sunday, a day after a Turkish soldier died in a rocket attack allegedly by the militia.
The Pentagon called the clashes “unacceptable” and urged an immediate de-escalation.
Turkey’s operation aims to push the YPG back across the Euphrates River to prevent it joining up the region east of the river already under its control with a Kurdish-held area to the west.
– ‘Ethnic cleansing’ –
Ankara fears the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria would bolster Kurdish rebels across the border in southeast Turkey.
US Vice President Joe Biden, visiting Ankara last week, said Washington had told the YPG to go back across the Euphrates or risk losing American support. But Ankara says it had seen no evidence of this.
“The YPG… needs to cross east of the Euphrates as soon as possible. So long as they don’t, they will be a target,” said Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
“In the places where it has moved, the YPG forces everyone out — including Kurds — who do not think like it does, and carries out ethnic cleansing,” he added.
Cavusoglu said the pre-war ethnic composition of the area around the city of Manbij west of the Euphrates — captured by the YPG from IS earlier this month — was largely Arab and must not be changed.
Turkey accuses the YPG of being an offshoot of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged a deadly insurgency on Turkish territory for over three decades.
On Monday, the Turkish air force launched air strikes on PKK targets at their rear bases in northern Iraq, the first since the Syria operation began, state media said.
– ‘Deep concern’ –
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 40 civilians were killed in Turkish shelling and air strikes in northern Syria on Sunday, claims strongly rejected by Ankara.
The Turkish government said 13 villages had “been cleared of terrorist elements” and were now controlled by anti-regime Syrian fighters that Ankara refers to as the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Ankara-backed forces captured the IS border stronghold of Jarabulus last week, facing seemingly little resistance from the jihadists who fled to bases further south.
But the standoff with the Kurdish militia has been intense, with a Turkish soldier killed on Saturday in a YPG rocket attack on his tank.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the reported clashes were “unacceptable and a source of deep concern”.
“The United States was not involved in these activities, they were not coordinated with US forces, and we do not support them,” he said.
He called for steps to de-escalate the situation and said Washington had once again told the YPG to retreat east of the Euphrates. This has “largely occurred,” he added.
– ‘Prevent Kurdish corridor’ –
The Jarabulus military council — affiliated to the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — said its forces have withdrawn south of the Sajur River, 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of Jarabulus “to protect the lives of civilians.”
This goes some way to meeting Turkish demands but it still leaves SDF-affiliated forces in and north of Manbij west of the Euphrates.
The Turkish army said in a statement said it had fired 61 times on 20 targets in northern Syria in the last 24 hours. It did not say which group was targeted.
Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus confirmed one of the key aims of its unprecedented operation was to prevent the creation of a YPG-controlled corridor stretching from Iraq to the verge of the Mediterranean.
“If that happens, it means Syria has been divided,” he added, quoted by NTV television.
He said all relevant parties had been informed of Turkey’s operation in Syria, including the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a bitter enemy of Ankara who had been informed by its ally Russia.
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