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Turkey, US and Russia in Syria

Tuesday 23 January 2018, by siawi3

Source: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-turkey/turkey-says-seeks-no-clash-with-u-s-russia-but-will-pursue-syria-goals-idUSKBN1FC12J

Turkey says seeks no clash with U.S., Russia, but will pursue Syria goals

Tuvan Gumrukcu, Ellen Francis

January 23, 2018 / 11:05 AM / Updated 11 minutes ago

ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Turkey seeks to avoid any clash with U.S., Russian or Syrian forces but will take any steps needed for its security, a Turkish minister said on Tuesday, the fourth day of an air and ground offensive against Kurdish forces in northwest Syria.

Photo: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan chairs a security meeting in Ankara, Turkey January 23, 2018. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

The United States and Russia both have military forces in Syria and have urged Turkey to show restraint in its campaign, Operation Olive Branch, to crush the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG in the Afrin region on Turkey’s southern border.

The operation has opened a new front in Syria’s multi-sided civil war and could threaten U.S. plans to stabilize and rebuild a large area of northeast Syria - beyond President Bashar al-Assad’s control - where the United States helped the YPG drive out Islamic State fighters.

Turkey’s military, the second largest in NATO, has conducted air strikes and artillery barrages against targets in Afrin, and its soldiers and allied Syrian rebels have tried to push into the Kurdish-held district from west, north and eastern flanks.

With heavy cloud hindering air support in the last 24 hours, advances have been limited and Kurdish fighters have retaken some territory. Turkish troops and the Syrian fighters have been trying to take the summit of Bursaya Hill, overlooking the eastern approach to Afrin town.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said 22 civilians had been killed in Turkish shelling and air strikes, and thousands were fleeing the fighting.

However, Syrian government forces were preventing people from crossing government-held checkpoints to reach the Kurdish-held districts of nearby Aleppo city, it said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday Turkey’s offensive was distracting from efforts to defeat Islamic State.

Ankara says the jihadist group is largely finished in Syria and that the greater threat comes from the YPG, which it sees as an extension of a Kurdish group that has waged a decades-long separatist insurgency inside Turkish own borders.

President Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey aims to destroy YPG control not just in the Afrin enclave but also in the mainly Arab town of Manbij to the east.

“Terrorists in Manbij are constantly firing provocation shots. If the United States doesn’t stop this, we will stop it,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was reported as saying on Tuesday.

“Our goal is not to clash with Russians, the Syrian regime or the United States, it is to battle the terrorist organization,” broadcaster Haberturk quoted him as saying.

“I must take whatever step I have to. If not, our future as a country is in jeopardy tomorrow. We are not afraid of anyone on this, we are determined... We will not live with fear and threats,” Cavusoglu said.

Photo: Turkish army tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APC) are seen near the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province, Turkey January 23, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

He later tweeted that a lieutenant had become the second Turkish soldier to be killed in the operation.

MANBIJ FEARS

Preventing Turkey from driving Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S.-backed umbrella group that is dominated by the YPG, out of Manbij is a central goal for Washington, U.S. officials say.

Manbij is part of a larger area of north Syria controlled by Kurdish-dominated forces. Unlike in Afrin, where no U.S. forces are stationed, 2,000 U.S. military personnel are deployed in the eastern region which extends for 400 km (250 miles) along Turkey’s border.

YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud said Turkish shelling on Monday had killed three people in the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ayn, pointing to the risk of widening hostilities along the frontier.
Turkish army vehicles are pictured near the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province, Turkey January 23, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Ras al-Ayn is located in Kurdish-controlled territory some 300 km (190 miles) east of Afrin. It was one of several locations in northeast Syria targeted in cross-border attacks from Turkey on Monday, Mahmoud said.

The United States hopes to use the YPG’s control in northern Syria to give it the diplomatic muscle it needs to revive U.N.-led talks in Geneva on a deal that would end Syria’s civil war.

France, like the United States and Russia a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, added its voice on Tuesday to the calls for Turkish restraint.

“I had the opportunity to tell my Turkish colleague (Cavusoglu) ... that this offensive worries us,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters in Paris.

Ankara has been infuriated by U.S. support for the YPG, which is one of several issues that have brought ties between Washington and its Muslim NATO ally close to breaking point.

“The future of our relations depends on the step the United States will take next,” Cavusoglu said.

Turkey, which carried out a seven-month military operation in northern Syria two years ago to push back Islamic State and YPG fighters, will continue to act where it thinks necessary, he said.

“Whether it is Manbij, Afrin, the east of the Euphrates or even threats from northern Iraq, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “If there are terrorists on the other side of our borders, this is a threat for us.”

Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Daren Butler and Gareth Jones

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Source: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-turkey/turkey-expects-swift-campaign-against-u-s-backed-kurds-in-syria-idUSKBN1FB0WJ

January 22, 2018 / 9:52 AM / Updated 18 hours ago

Turkey expects swift campaign against U.S.-backed Kurds in Syria

Mert Ozkan

HASSA, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkey shelled targets in northwest Syria on Monday and said it would swiftly crush U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG fighters in an air and ground offensive on the Afrin region beyond its border.

The three-day-old campaign has opened a new front in Syria’s multi-sided civil war, realigning a battlefield where outside powers are supporting local combatants.

While Washington and other Western capitals expressed concern, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he had secured a go-ahead for the campaign from Russia, principal backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, long Turkey’s foe.

Turkey sees the YPG presence on its southern border as a domestic security threat.

Turkish forces and their Syrian anti-Assad rebel allies began their push on Saturday to clear the northwestern border enclave of Kurdish YPG fighters. Ankara considers the YPG to be allies of insurgents that have fought against the Turkish state for decades. The United States, meanwhile, has armed and aided the YPG as its main ground allies against Islamic State.

Senior U.N. officials briefed the United Nations Security Council behind closed doors on Monday, at the request of France, on the humanitarian and political situation in Syria.

“With respect to the situation in Afrin, it was of course part of the conversation,” said French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre after the meeting, adding that it was mentioned by most of the 15 council members. “France calls on Turkey for restraint in the volatile environment that we all know in Syria.”

But Erdogan said Turkey was determined to press ahead. “There’s no stepping back from Afrin,” he said in a speech in Ankara. “We discussed this with our Russian friends, we have an agreement with them, and we also discussed it with other coalition forces and the United States.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington had proposed working with Turkey and forces on the ground in Afrin to “see how we can stabilize this situation and meet Turkey’s legitimate concerns for their security.”

But Turkey said Washington must end its support for the Kurdish YPG militia before any proposal for cooperation: “If they want a cooperation, we are ready for this cooperation. As the first step to take, they can stop arming terror groups and take back weapons already given,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

Syria has objected to the Turkish incursion, and Moscow, which controls parts of Syrian air space on behalf of its allies in Damascus, has not confirmed giving a green light to it. But Russia does not appear to be acting to prevent it, and has pulled its own troops out of the Afrin area.

Iran, Assad’s other main military supporter, called for a halt to the operation. Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said the Afrin campaign could lead to “the return of regional terrorism and extremism”, according to state television.

The YPG’s Afrin spokesman, Birusk Hasaka, said there were clashes between Kurdish and Turkish-backed forces on the third day of the operation, and that Turkish shelling had hit civilian areas in Afrin’s northeast.

Afrin would be a “quagmire from which the Turkish army will only exit after suffering great losses”, said a statement from the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces umbrella group.
Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters are seen near Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, Syria January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

The YPG said Afrin had already been reinforced in anticipation of the Turkish offensive, and there were discussions over whether to send more reinforcements from other YPG-held territory, which is separated from Afrin by areas held by Syrian government forces.

The United Nations has said it is deeply concerned for the more than 300,000 people in Afrin. Spokeswoman Linda Tom said there were reports of people displaced within Afrin by the fighting, and of smaller numbers heading to nearby Aleppo.

U.S.-TURKEY TENSION

Ankara has been infuriated by U.S. support for the YPG, one of several issues that have brought relations between the United States and its Muslim NATO ally close to breaking point.

Erdogan has also pledged to drive the SDF from the town of Manbij to the east, part of a much larger area of northern Syria controlled by the YPG-led SDF. That raises the prospect of protracted conflict between Turkey and its allied Free Syrian Army factions against the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters.
Slideshow (13 Images)

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek played down the long-term risks: “Our investors should be at ease, the impact will be limited, the operation will be brief and it will reduce the terror risk to Turkey in the period ahead,” he said.

A senior Turkish official declined to give a timeframe but said the operation would “move fast”, adding that Turkey believed there was some local support for its action in both Afrin and Manbij.

YPG official Nouri Mahmoud said Turkish-backed forces had not taken any territory in Afrin. “Our forces have to this point repelled them and forced them to retreat,” he told Reuters.

A Turkish official said Turkish troops and allied Free Syrian Army fighters had begun to advance on Afrin’s eastern flank, taking control of a hill northwest of the town of Azaz. An FSA commander later told Reuters YPG forces had recaptured the summit of Barshah hill.

TURKISH SHELLING

A Reuters cameraman near Hassa, across the border from Afrin, saw Turkish shelling on Monday morning. Dogan news agency said Turkish howitzers opened fire at 1 a.m. (2200 GMT), and that YPG targets were also being hit by Turkish warplanes and multiple rocket launchers.

Defeating the YPG in Afrin would reduce Kurdish-controlled territory on Turkey’s frontier and link up two regions controlled by insurgents opposed to Assad - Idlib province and an area where Turkey fought for seven months in 2016-17 to drive back Islamic State and the YPG.

The Turkish-backed FSA factions, which have come together under the banner of a newly branded “National Army”, also want to see an end to YPG rule in Afrin. They accuse the YPG of displacing 150,000 Arab residents of towns including Tel Rifaat and Menigh to the east of Afrin, captured in 2016.

“This is a historic moment in our revolution,” Mohammad al-Hamadeen, a senior officer in the FSA forces, told fighters in Azaz on Sunday as they prepared to join the ground offensive.

“God willing, very soon we will return to our region that we were driven from two years ago.”

Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul, Orhan Coskun, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay in Ankara,; Tom Perry, Ellen Francis and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Tom Miles in Geneva and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Peter Graff and James Dalgleish