Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters are celebrate in Afrin, 18 March (Reuters)
Turkish forces will press their offensive against Kurdish YPG fighters along the length of Turkey’s border with Syria and if necessary into northern Iraq, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday.
Turkish troops and their rebel allies swept into the northwest Syrian town of Afrin on Sunday, the culmination of an eight-week campaign to drive the Kurdish YPG fighters from the region. On Monday, a Turkish aid group started distributing relief supplies in the town centre. But residents continued to leave after widespread reports of looting.
After seizing control of Afrin, the main town in a pocket of Kurdish-controlled territory in northwest Syria, Erdogan said Turkey would also target a region stretching nearly 400 km east to the northern Syrian town of Qamishli.
Expanding Turkey’s military campaign into the much larger Kurdish-held territory further east would risk confronting troops of a NATO ally, the United States, that are deployed alongside a YPG-dominated force in northern Syria.
The YPG has been Washington’s main ally against Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, in a partnership that has infuriated Ankara which sees the Kurdish force as an extension of a militant group waging a decades-long military campaign in its own southeast.
It launched the air and ground offensive two months ago against the YPG in Afrin, a campaign it dubbed “Olive Branch”.
“By controlling Afrin city centre yesterday, we have passed the most important step of the Olive Branch operation,” Erdogan told a gathering of judges and prosecutors in Ankara.
“After this, we will continue now to Manbij, Ayn al-Arab, Tel Abyad, Ras al-Ain and Qamishli until this corridor is fully removed,” he said, referring to a string of towns along Syria’s border region with Turkey.
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In Afrin town, triumphant Syrian rebels stood on a fallen statue, firing shots in the air, while military vehicles patrolled streets still littered with debris from the offensive.
Shops were closed and some people left for nearby villages. One resident said the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army fighters had been looting shops and homes.
“The Free Syrian Army came and entered into Afrin and supposedly we were going to be safe. But it turned out to be the opposite,” said the man, who did not give his name.
Erdogan’s spokesman told CNN that Turkey was taking the reports of looting seriously and that some fighters had not apparently followed the orders of their commanders.
The Syrian government demanded the Turkish troops leave Afrin.
“The announcement of Turkish regime’s president that his invading forces control Afrin is illegitimate,” Syria’s Foreign Ministry said in letters to the United Nations. “Syria demands the invading forces withdraw immediately from the Syrian lands they have occupied.”
The US State Department also called for international aid organisations to be given access to deliver humanitarian assistance in the area.
Turkey is concerned about the presence in northern Iraq of militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which it considers a “terrorist” organisation.
The PKK has been based in Qandil mountain region near Iraq’s border with Iran, but Erdogan said a “second Qandil” was being established in Sinjar, further west.
He said Turkey had told the Iraqi government to deal with the threat.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was holding talks with the Iraqi government, Erdogan added. “However, if this issue is prolonged much longer there will be an Olive Branch there too.”