'No ISIS fighters' in Turkish offensive area

Kurds in Athens protesting on Tuesday against the Turkish offensive in Afrin, in north-western Syria, and the attack on US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The Turkish military said on Tuesday that it had killed at least 260 Syrian Kurdish fighters a
Kurds in Athens protesting on Tuesday against the Turkish offensive in Afrin, in north-western Syria, and the attack on US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The Turkish military said on Tuesday that it had killed at least 260 Syrian Kurdish fighters and ISIS militants.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

US-backed force in Syria rejects Turkish army's claim about ISIS in Kurdish-dominated Afrin

ANKARA, BEIRUT • The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has rejected a Turkish army statement that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was present in the Afrin region of north-western Syria, where Ankara launched an offensive four days ago, raising international concern.

The Turkish military said late on Tuesday that it had killed at least 260 Syrian Kurdish fighters and ISIS militants in its offensive into the Kurdish-dominated Afrin.

Turkey's air and ground operation has opened a new front in Syria's multi-sided civil war and could threaten US plans to stabilise and rebuild a large area of northeast Syria - beyond President Bashar al-Assad's control - where the US helped SDF to drive out ISIS.

"The whole world knows Daesh (ISIS) is not present in Afrin," senior SDF official Redur Xelil said. He alleged that the Turkish military had greatly exaggerated SDF casualties, though he declined to say how many had been killed.

Turkey sees the YPG - the most powerful faction within the SDF - as an extension of a Kurdish group that has waged a decades-long insurgency in south-eastern Turkey. It has long said it will not allow the Kurdish fighters to control a strip of Syrian territory on its southern border.

US President Donald Trump plans to raise concerns with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about Ankara's offensive against Kurdish YPG fighters in Afrin, a senior US official said.

French President Emmanuel Macron also voiced disquiet, a few hours after Turkey's foreign minister said it wanted to avoid any clash with US, Russian or Syrian government forces during its offensive but would do whatever necessary for its security.

The United States and Russia both have military forces in Syria backing opposing sides and have called for Turkish restraint in its "Operation Olive Branch", meant to crush the YPG in the Afrin region.

A senior Trump administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said Ankara had sent "conflicting signals" about the scope of the offensive.

"We're going to have to see how this develops on the ground. But our message has been unified. We would appreciate it and we would urge them to limit the incursion as much as possible."

Mr Erdogan told Mr Macron on Tuesday that Turkey was taking all measures to prevent civilian casualties in the Afrin operation, sources at the presidential palace said. The two leaders agreed to stay in close contact on the issue.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin had also discussed Turkey's operation with Mr Erdogan by phone and that Syria's territorial integrity and sovereignty had to be respected. A Kremlin statement said both men stressed the importance of continuing their two countries' joint work to try to find a peaceful resolution to Syria's crisis.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reiterated Ankara's demand that Washington stop supporting the YPG. Ankara has said the operation will be swift, but Mr Erdogan's spokesman signalled an open-ended cross-border campaign, saying it would end only when some 3.5 million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey could safely return home.

The US hopes to use the YPG's control in northern Syria to give it the diplomatic muscle to revive UN-led talks in Geneva on a deal that would end Syria's civil war.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2018, with the headline ''No ISIS fighters' in Turkish offensive area'. Print Edition | Subscribe