Turkey on Monday said it would continue targeting a Syrian Kurdish militia in Syria if it failed to fulfil promises to retreat east of the Euphrates River, accusing the group of ethnic cleansing. But the warning came amid a call by a top U.S. official to focus on the fight against ISIS.
“The YPG (People’s Protection Units) first of all… needs to cross east of the Euphrates as soon as possible. So long as they don’t, they will be a target,” said Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
“In the places where it has moved, the YPG forces everyone out — including Kurds — who do not think like it does and carries out ethnic cleansing,” he added.
Ankara had said it had killed 25 Kurdish “terrorists” on Sunday as it pressed on with a two-pronged operation inside Syria against ISIS jihadists and the YPG.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 40 civilians were killed in Turkish shelling and airstrikes, claims that were strongly rejected by Ankara.
“Allegations that… civilians were shot at or targeted do not reflect the truth,” the office of the prime minister said, adding the army was taking “all necessary measures to prevent any harm to the civilian population.”
The action against the YPG is hugely sensitive as the Kurdish group — seen as a terror group by Ankara — is an ally of Turkey’s NATO ally, the United States, in the fight against ISIS in Syria.
The U.S. Monday criticized clashes between Turkish forces and some opposition groups in northern Syria as “unacceptable” and called on all armed actors in the fighting to stand down and focus on the fight against ISIS.
“We want to make clear that we find these clashes – in areas where ISIS is not located – unacceptable and a source of deep concern,” Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the coalition to counter ISIS, said on his official Twitter account, citing a defense department statement.
“We call on all armed actors to stand down… the U.S. is actively engaged to facilitate such deconfliction and unity of focus on ISIS, which remains a lethal and common threat.”
The chief spokesman for the YPG also said that Turkey’s claims that is it fighting YPG forces west of the Euphrates river were untrue and a pretext for seizing Syrian territory.
“There are absolutely no YPG military reinforcements being sent towards Manbij. Turkey’s claims that it is fighting the YPG west of the Euphrates have no basis in truth and are merely flimsy pretexts to widen its occupation of Syrian land,” Redur Xelil told Reuters.
But Cavusoglu said the ethnic composition of the area around the city of Manbij west of the Euphrates — captured by the YPG from ISIS earlier this month — was largely Arab.
“Residents who had to leave the region (before fighting broke out) must be the ones who live there. But that is not the goal of the YPG,” he said at a news conference alongside his Dutch counterpart Bert Koenders.
Cavusoglu also hailed the success of the lightning operation by Turkish-backed Syrian Arab fighters, who on Wednesday captured the town of Jarablus from ISIS.
“The objective of this operation (Jarablus) … is to clear this region of the Daesh (ISIS) terrorist organization.”
“As you see, even with a small force, ISIS … is leaving and running away from the regions under their control,” he added.