Thu Sep 8, 2016 1:14am EDT
A group of 292 Syrians went back to the Syrian town of Jarablus from Turkey on Wednesday, marking the first formal return of civilians since Ankara launched a military incursion two weeks ago to try to secure the border region, a Turkish official said.
Jarablus, which had been held by Islamic State, was the first town captured by Turkey’s army and its Syrian rebel allies in an offensive launched on Aug. 24 that aims to sweep away jihadists and Syrian Kurdish militias from the frontier.
Turkey has said it cleared militants from a 90-km (56-mile) stretch of Syrian territory and has pushed south. It has also said it would support any U.S. initiative to strike Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa, further to the southeast.
But Turkey’s tactics have drawn criticism from its NATO ally the United States and also from Russia, with which it recently patched up ties.
Washington says Turkish attacks on Kurdish-aligned militias damage a U.S.-backed coalition that is fighting Islamic State. Russia, which backs the government in Damascus, said on Wednesday Ankara’s push south threatened Syria’s sovereignty.
“We call on Ankara to refrain from any steps which can further destabilize the situation in Syria,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Turkey, which hosts 3 million Syrian refugees, has urged world powers to back plans for a “safe zone” in north Syria to stem the flow of migrants and to allow Syrians to return home.
Although it has failed to win support for the idea, Ankara has pressed on with its offensive to carve out a swathe of territory under the control of the Turkish army and its allies, the Free Syrian Army, allowing some civilians to return home.
“The formal returns have begun today,” said a spokesman at the governor’s office for the southern Turkish province of Gaziantep, which lies across the border from Jarablus.
He said there were 292 people in the first group of registered returnees, including women, children and the elderly. More would be allowed to return but only gradually, he added.
To encourage returnees, Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said Turkey would supply mains power to Jarablus on Saturday, followed by water supplies two days later. Power supplies across Syria have been severely disrupted by the war.
“Turkey has supported us in every way until now, and has now saved our homeland,” said Fatima Mahmud, a mother who was among the group, told the Turkish newspaper Milliyet.
The United Nations has said an area can only be declared a “safe zone” if the protection of civilians can be guaranteed. It has previously cautioned against encouraging returns too soon.
“Currently, conflict lines are too insecure for many of the town’s displaced to return safely,” the U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA said in a report last week, referring to Jarablus which had a pre-war population of about 27,500 people.
South and west of Jarablus, Turkish forces have continued fighting. The deputy prime minister said four Turkish soldiers had been killed and 19 wounded in the two-week offensive.
Turkey has repeatedly demanded that the Kurdish YPG militia withdraw to the eastern side of the Euphrates, where there is a Kurdish-controlled canton. Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the PKK which is fighting an insurgency on Turkish soil.
The YPG says its troops have long since withdrawn from areas being targeted by Turkish-backed forces. Canikli told a news conference on Wednesday that the YPG had not yet completely pulled back east.
The army said Turkey’s rebel allies had taken six more villages, located in Islamic State-held areas, adding to dozens of settlements now under the control of Turkish-backed forces.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had told U.S. President Barack Obama that Turkey would support a joint operation to capture Raqqa, the Syrian city that is Islamic State’s de facto capital, Canikli said.
Erdogan earlier said Obama had floated the idea of such cooperation during meetings at a summit of G20 leaders in China this week, the daily Hurriyet reported. The president had said a specific Turkish role would depend on further talks.
U.S. officials have welcomed Turkish efforts to dislodge Islamic State but voiced concern when Turkish troops engaged fighters aligned with the Kurdish YPG militia, a force Washington sees as a valuable ally in battling jihadists.
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, Lidia Kelly in Moscow,; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Alison Williams)
Islamic State group: Turkey and US ‘ready to invade capital’
Raqqa is considered the IS militants’ de facto capital and its loss would be a huge blow. Reuters
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested he and the US are ready to drive so-called Islamic State (IS) from its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.
Mr Erdogan said US President Barack Obama floated the idea of joint action against the militants when they met at the G20 summit in China.
He said Turkey would have “no problem” with such action.
Last month Turkey launched an operation inside Syria, targeting both IS and Kurdish rebels.
The US State Department would not confirm the details of Mr Erdogan’s statement, but an official said it was important that “local forces” were involved in the fight to deliver “a lasting defeat” to IS.
“The actions that Turkey is currently taking along its border with Syria, with US support, is having the important effect of isolating Raqqa,” the official said.
“That is a critical step in our ultimate objective to liberate Raqqa from Isil (IS) control.”
Turkish-backed militia have driven IS from the border town of Jarablus, but Turkey has also been concerned with checking the advance of Kurdish forces whom it regards as terrorists.
The offensive continues, and Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said Turkish forces might push deeper into Syria after securing a stretch of land along the border.
Mr Canikli also said 110 Islamic State and Kurdish militia fighters had been killed since the operation began.
Russia, which is allied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said it was “deeply concerned” by the Turkish advance.
‘What is necessary will be done’
Mr Erdogan’s comments on Raqqa were published in Turkish media.
“Obama wants to do some things jointly concerning Raqqa,” Mr Erdogan said. “We said this would not be a problem from our perspective.”
“I said: ‘Our soldiers should come together and discuss, then what is necessary will be done’,” Mr Erdogan added.
Mr Erdogan gave few other details but said more discussions would follow.
Raqqa’s fall was a key point in the rise of IS as it seized swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, and is now considered the jihadists’ de facto capital.
Between 250,000-500,000 people are still thought to live there, with brutal stories emerging of the treatment of civilians.
Analysis: By Jonathan Marcus, BBC defence & diplomatic correspondent
Through its large-scale incursion into northern Syria, Turkey has made itself a military player in the country.
But Ankara’s move, directed in part against Kurdish forces backed by Washington, prompted serious strains in US-Turkey relations, already poor in the wake of the failed coup against the Erdogan government.
There is now a desire on both sides to improve ties and the suggestion from President Erdogan of US acquiescence in a Turkish role in the wider battle-plan to recapture Raqqa from IS is clearly part of this.
It would be an acknowledgement by Washington of Turkey’s continuing strategic interest in Syria.
No details have been given as to what a Turkish role might amount to but clearly if Raqqa is attacked then the zone approaching the Turkish border to the north of the city needs to be secured to block the withdrawal of fleeing IS forces.
Russian Su-27 fighter plane
U.S. Navy picture shows what appears to be a Russian Sukhoi SU-24 attack aircraft making a very low pass close to the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea. Two Russian warplanes with no visible weaponry flew near the destroyer in what one U.S. official described as one of the most aggressive interactions in recent memory. This picture taken April 12, 2016 and released April 13, 2016. REUTERS/US Navy/Handout via Reuters. REUTERS/US Navy/Handout via Reuters
Tags: Aleppo, Assad, Daesh, Erdogan, Iran, ISIL, ISIS, Islamic state, Kurdish, Kurdish forces, Raqqa, Russia, Syria, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, US