ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s president on Wednesday vowed to expand its operation against US-allied Kurdish forces in northern Syria toward the town of Manbij, which would bring Turkish troops and their Syrian allies closer to US forces supporting the Kurds against the Islamic State group.
Turkey launched an incursion Saturday against the Afrin enclave, which is controlled by a Kurdish militia that played a key role in US efforts to roll back the extremist group. US forces are based in Kurdish-held parts of northeastern Syria but not in or near Afrin.
Any shift toward Manbij would bring NATO member Turkey and its Syrian allies closer to US forces, which are based nearby and patrol the town. The US has urged Turkey to exercise restraint, saying the offensive distracts from efforts to prevent the resurgence of IS. Ankara views the Kurdish People’s Defense Units, or YPG, as a threat because of its links to outlawed Kurdish separatists in Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday vowed to “foil games along our borders starting from Manbij.”
“We will clean our region from this trouble completely,” he told officials at a meeting in Ankara.
Kurdish forces captured Manbij, which is west of the Euphrates River, from IS in 2016 with the help of the US-led coalition.
Turkey has long demanded that the Kurdish fighters withdraw to the eastern bank of the river, and US forces have patrolled the area to try to reduce tensions.
The advancing Turkish troops are facing stiff resistance in Afrin. Activists and Kurdish officials say airstrikes are still raining down on several parts of the district, which borders Turkey.
The United Nations says an estimated 5,000 people have been displaced inside the encircled enclave, and that Kurdish forces are not allowing civilians to leave.
Erdogan said Turkish troops and allied fighters have killed at least 268 Syrian Kurdish fighters since the operation began. He said Turkish troops have suffered seven or eight losses.
“This operation will continue until the last member of the terror organization is neutralized,” he said.
Turkey says it wants to create a 30 kilometer (20-mile) deep “secure zone” in Afrin. Erdogan said the operation would allow Syrian refugees to return home. Turkey is home to more than 3 million refugees, the vast majority of whom hail from other parts of Syria.
At least 27 civilians have been killed in the fighting in Afrin, mainly in Turkish airstrikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the civil war.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday that the fighting “disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria” and “distracts from the international efforts to ensure the defeat of ISIS,” using another acronym for the extremist group.
IS has been driven from nearly all the territory it once controlled in Syria and neighboring Iraq, but the extremist group has proven resilient after past defeats, and is still launching insurgent-style attacks.
Russia has meanwhile accused the United States of promoting unverified reports about chemical weapons attacks in Syria in order to cloud Moscow’s latest peace initiative, while the Syrian government dismissed the reports as “lies.”
The United States and 28 other countries are launching a new plan to better identify and punish anyone who uses chemical weapons, amid new reports of a suspected gas attack in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus earlier this week.
In an interview with the Interfax news agency, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov accused the US of promoting “rigged, unverified reports” of the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria to hamper Russian peace efforts.
Russia is hosting peace talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi next week that some Syrian opposition figures said will run counter to UN peace initiatives.
Ryabkov’s remarks came a day after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Moscow “ultimately bears responsibility for the victims” of the latest suspected chemical attack.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry dismissed the allegations as “unacceptable” and blamed Western nations for blocking probes and pressuring investigators after previous attacks.
The US and Russia reached an agreement in 2013 to remove all chemical weapons from Syria, but there have been several reported chemical attacks since then, including one last year that led US President Donald Trump to order a retaliatory missile attack on a Syrian air base.