Turkey ready to enter Kurdish-held Syrian town

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters celebrating after advancing in the north of Afrin town on Thursday.
Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters celebrating after advancing in the north of Afrin town on Thursday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Turkish army, allies gain pace in recent weeks in attacks against Kurdish militia in region

ANKARA • Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkish forces and allied rebels could enter the centre of the Kurdish-held Syrian town of Afrin "at any moment", a day after the capture of another key strategic town.

"Now our objective is Afrin... As of now, we have Afrin encircled. We can enter Afrin at any moment, God willing," Mr Erdogan told his ruling party in Ankara yesterday, a day after Turkish forces took control of the town of Jandairis, west of Afrin.

"The operations in Afrin will continue until this swamp of terror is dried," he warned.

On Jan 20, Ankara launched Operation Olive Branch in the Afrin region of northern Syria against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia which control the area, but which Turkey regards as a terror group.

Despite encountering fierce resistance - which has seen 42 Turkish troops lose their lives - the Turkish military and its Syrian allies appear to have gained new momentum in the last weeks.

The capture of Jandairis - one of the key centres in the region other than Afrin - was seen by analysts as giving Ankara a clear path towards its main target.

But the operation has ratcheted up tensions with the United States, pitting Turkey's army against a militia force allied with its fellow Nato member in the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

FIGHTING THE MILITIA

Today we are in Afrin and tomorrow we will be in Manbij. And the next day, we will ensure that terrorists are cleared east of the Euphrates River up to the Iraqi border.

TURKEY'S PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, reaffirming his vows that Turkey would not limit itself to clearing the Afrin region of the Kurdish People's Protection Units militia.

Mr Erdogan also reaffirmed his previous vows that Turkey would not limit itself to clearing the Afrin region of the YPG, saying it wanted to carry on to the town of Manbij to the east and then to the Iraqi border.

"Today we are in Afrin and tomorrow we will be in Manbij. And the next day, we will ensure that terrorists are cleared east of the Euphrates River up to the Iraqi border," he said.

Manbij is regarded as a particularly delicate issue as the US - unlike in Afrin - has a presence there, raising the prospect of a direct clash with Turkey.

Meanwhile, an emergency aid delivery crossed front lines into the besieged rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta yesterday but ran quickly into danger from shelling, the top United Nations official in Syria said, amid a fierce government offensive.

In less than two weeks, the Syrian army has retaken nearly all the farmland in eastern Ghouta under cover of near ceaseless shelling and air strikes, leaving only a dense sprawl of towns - about half the territory - still under insurgent control.

Damascus and its main ally Moscow have both said the assault is needed to stop rebel shelling of the nearby capital Damascus and end the rule of Islamist insurgents over civilians in eastern Ghouta.

But UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has said, in comments criticised by Syria's government, that the assault was "legally, and morally, unsustainable".

The war in Syria started in March 2011 when protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad sparked a brutal crackdown.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, more than 340,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2018, with the headline 'Turkey ready to enter Kurdish-held Syrian town'. Print Edition | Subscribe