Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeated his intention to expand Ankara’s military operation in a Kurdish enclave in Syria, targeting fighters he says are linked to a Kurdish terror group that operates in Turkey.
Speaking in Ankara, Erdogan said Turkish forces will push farther east into Afrin, which is just beyond the Syrian border with Turkey. He said he intends to push the operation to the city of Manbij and then as far east as the Iraqi border “until no terrorist is left.”
The move could pit Turkish forces against some of the 2,000 U.S. troops who are in Syria as part of an international coalition aiming to eliminate the Islamic State militant movement in Syria.
“We will clear Manbij of terrorists,” Erdogan said in a speech Friday. “No one should be disturbed by this because the real owners of Manbij are not these terrorists, they are our Arab brothers.”
Erdogan made his remarks on the seventh day of the Turkish operation in Afrin. He also criticized the United States for its support of the Kurdish forces in Manbij, saying, “Our greatest sadness is to see these terrorist organizations run wild holding U.S. flags in this region.”
The Pentagon has described the Turkish operation in Afrin as unhelpful and possibly damaging to the effort to defeat Islamic State militants in Syria.
Turkey’s Health Minister said Friday that the country’s troops had sustained 14 deaths since the Afrin operation began. He said three Turkish troops and 11 Syrian opposition fighters allied with them were killed in the fighting, while 130 others were wounded.
Syrian Democratic Forces said Turkey’s incursion has killed about 59 civilians and 43 fighters in the past week, including eight female fighters. Turkey released a far different count, saying its forces have killed at least 343 “terrorists” on the Syrian side.
Turkey considers the Kurdish forces in Syria, known as the YPG, to be terrorists because it believes them to be linked to Kurdish separatists in Turkey. The Kurds make up a major part of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Afrin.
U.S.-Turkish relations suffered a separate blow this week, with Ankara and Washington disputing each other’s version of a telephone call Wednesday between the U.S. and Turkish presidents. The phone call was aimed at defusing tensions over Turkish-led forces’ intervention in Syria.
Washington says U.S. President Donald Trump took a “firm” and “tough” stance during his phone call with Erdogan Wednesday. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that the State Department stands by Trump’s assertion that he cautioned Turkey about escalating tensions in Afrin.
But Ankara denies Trump’s claim, denying there was any request that Turkey de-escalate the military operation in Afrin.
The dispute over the contents of the telephone call is exacerbating a lack of trust between the two NATO allies.