ANAKARA, Turkey — Turkey on Thursday said it had “every right” to intervene if Syrian Kurdish militia fighters do not withdraw east of the Euphrates River in Syria as promised by the United States, as the Kurds vowed they would not retreat.
Turkish forces, led by tanks, moved into Syria a day earlier in an operation to sweep Islamic State jihadists from the Syrian-Turkish border.
The advancing army captured the key border town of Jarablus that the US-backed Syrian Kurdish militias have vowed to take for themselves.
Ankara has said the operation in Syria is aimed not just at IS jihadists but also the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia.
Syrian Kurdish forces “must move to the east of the Euphrates and Turkey is following this very closely,” Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik told NTV television.
“If this withdrawal doesn’t happen, Turkey has every right to intervene,” Isik added.
But the YPG told AFP in Beirut it had no interest in listening to ultimatums laid down by Turkey.
“The YPG are Syrians and they are present on Syrian land — Turkey cannot impose restrictions on the movements of Syrians on their land,” said Redur Xelil, spokesperson for the YPG.
The Kurdish militia group defiantly declared it will not give up territory to Turkey.
“Our forces are part of the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] and we insist on our mission and goal. We won’t listen to the demands of Turkey or powers outside of Turkey,” Xelil said according to a report from Rudaw, a Kurdish media network. “Turkey cannot impose its own agenda, its own interests on us. Our forces are there. We will not withdraw from west of the Euphrates. No one has the right to ask the YPG to leave the area.”
Turkey sees the YPG as a terror group bent on carving out an autonomous region in Syria.
Xelil claimed that the YPG is the real target of the Turkish military operation, rather than IS.
“The Turkish intervention in Jarablus is a hostile intervention. Its main goal, more than ISIS, is the Kurds,” he said using another acronym for the Islamic State group.
Ankara’s hostility to the YPG puts it at loggerheads with its NATO ally, the United States, which works with the group on the ground in the fight against IS.
US Vice President Joe Biden, visiting Turkey on Wednesday where he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made clear that Washington has strictly told the YPG not to move west of the Euphrates and would no longer receive American support if they did.
But Isik said there was as yet no sign of the withdrawal.
“They have not yet withdrawn but we are watching and monitoring whether they will withdraw. Turkey will be following, moment by moment,” Isik said, adding the withdrawal was promised within a week.
In the confusion following the Turkish onslaught conflicting reports emerged on YPG movements.
A spokesman for the US-led coalition against IS had tweeted that the Syrian Kurdish forces “have moved east across the Euphrates to prepare for the eventual liberation” of the IS stronghold of Raqqa.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said only a small number of the Kurdish forces had moved east back across the river, and most were still on the western side.
The Kurdish forces were still present around the Syrian town of Manbij seized from IS earlier this month, which lies well west of the Euphrates, it added.