Turkey to hit Syrian Kurd fighters if they do not leave Manbij

Turkish soldiers participate in an exercise on the Turkish-Syria border near the southeastern city of Kilis, Turkey. (Reuters)
Updated 03 March 2017
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Turkey to hit Syrian Kurd fighters if they do not leave Manbij

ANKARA: Turkey on Thursday threatened to strike Syrian Kurdish militia forces if they do not withdraw from Manbij, a former bastion of Daesh extremists that has been taken over by predominantly-Kurdish forces.
“We will strike the YPG if they do not retreat,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told journalists, referring to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.
The YPG, which Ankara considers a “terrorist” organization, is backed by Washington as the most effective fighting force on the ground in the battle against Daesh.
Turkey launched a military campaign inside Syria in August, backing opposition fighters who captured a number of towns from Daesh, including Al-Bab near the Turkish border.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week said the next target would be Manbij — which is now controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a group dominated by Kurdish fighters that Ankara denounces as “terrorists.”
“We have not yet started our operation in Manbij,” Cavusoglu said.
Turkey has also said it wanted to work with its allies to capture Daesh bastion of Raqqa, but has ruled out any operation alongside the Kurdish militia.
“Let’s be realistic ... To carry out this (Raqqa) operation with YPG is to risk Syria’s future,” he said.
“We do not want our ally the US to continue cooperating with terror organizations that target us.”
Turkey has repeatedly said it will not allow a “terror corridor” along its southern border and is trying to prevent Syrian Kurdish militia from joining up its so-called “cantons” in the area.
Separately, a US-allied militia in northern Syria said on Thursday it would hand over villages on a front line where it has been fighting Turkish-backed fighters to Syrian regime control, under an agreement with Russia.
The villages will be surrendered to the Syrian regime in the coming days, an official in the Manbij Military Council told Reuters. An earlier statement by the council said the villages would be handed to Syrian border guards.
Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara the report was false, but added there was an agreement with Russia that the Syrian regime and opposition forces should not fight each other in that area.
The villages west of the city of Manbij have been a focus of fighting between the Turkish-backed fighters and the Manbij Military Council, the US-allied militia, since Wednesday.
In another development, Syrian warplanes carried out eight airstrikes in an opposition-held district of the mostly regime-controlled city of Homs on Thursday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitoring group, said the airstrikes killed two civilians and wounded more than 24 people in Al-Waer, as UN-sponsored peace talks continued in Geneva.
Although Homs, an early center of the uprising against President Bashar Assad, has been almost entirely held by the regime since 2014, Al-Waer, a western district, remains in opposition hands.
Opposition shelling killed two people and wounded six in the regime-held district of Al-Zahra on Thursday, the Observatory said.
A US general has, meanwhile, claimed that a Russian airstrike hit US-backed Syrian Arab forces who are part of the fight against Daesh.
Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend says an unspecified number of American troops were a few miles away, out of immediate danger but close enough to see their Syrian partners being hit.
Townsend said the Americans sent word that quickly reached Russian officials. Russia then acknowledged the problem and stopped bombing.
Townsend said Wednesday he believes the Russians thought they were striking a Daesh position. But Daesh fighters had left the village before the bombing and members of what the US calls the Syrian Arab Coalition had moved in.


Daesh ‘caliphate’ on brink of defeat in Syria as Trump urges Europe to do more

Updated 20 min 15 sec ago
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Daesh ‘caliphate’ on brink of defeat in Syria as Trump urges Europe to do more

  • “The Caliphate is ready to fall,” he said in a Tweet
  • US-backed fighters in Syria are poised to capture Daesh’s last, tiny enclave on the Euphrates

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria: US-backed fighters in Syria are poised to capture Daesh’s last, tiny enclave on the Euphrates, the battle commander said on Saturday, bringing its self-declared caliphate to the brink of total defeat as US President Donald Trump spoke of “100 percent victory”.
Jiya Furat said the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had cornered the remaining militants in a neighborhood of Baghouz village near the Iraqi border, under fire from all sides.
“In the coming few days, in a very short time, we will spread the good tidings to the world of the military end of Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Daesh.
He was speaking after said on Friday there would be “great announcements” about Syria over the next 24 hours.
Trump on Saturday said the caliphate was “ready to fall and that the United States was asking European allies to take back more than 800 Daesh fighters captured in Syria and put them on trial.
“The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial,” he said in a Tweet. “The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them...
“....The US does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go. We do so much, and spend so much - Time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing. We are pulling back after 100% Caliphate victory!”
Trump has sworn to pull US forces from Syria after Daesh’s territorial defeat, raising questions over the fate of Washington’s Kurdish allies and Turkish involvement in northeast Syria.
As the SDF advanced under heavy US airstrikes in recent days, a stream of civilians fled the few square miles of hamlets and farmland that remain within Daesh’s ‘caliphate’, along with defeated jihadists trying to escape unnoticed.
Though Daesh fighters still hold out in a pocket of central Syria’s remote desert, and have gone underground as sleeper cells in Iraqi cities, able to launch new attacks, their territorial rule is, for now, almost over.
It ends a project launched from the great mediaeval mosque of Mosul in northern Iraq in 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seized advantage of regional chaos to proclaim himself caliph, suzerain over all Muslim people and land.
He set up a governing system with courts, a currency and flag that at its height stretched from northwest Syria almost to Baghdad, encompassing some two million inhabitants.
Human shields
But its reign of terror over minorities and other perceived enemies, marked by massacres, sexual slavery and the beheading of hostages, drew a forceful international military response that pushed it steadily back from 2015.
Most of the fighters left in Baghouz are foreigners, the SDF has said, among the thousands drawn by Baghdadi’s promise of a new jihadist utopia straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border and expunging national borders.
All that remains, said Furat, is an encircled pocket some 700 meters square. “Thousands of civilians are still trapped there as human shields,” he said.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF had taken control of all of Baghouz after the jihadists there surrendered. SDF officials denied this.
Spokesman Mustafa Bali said the SDF had caught several militants trying to flee among the civilians. Others had handed themselves over.
Their fate, and that of their families, has befuddled foreign governments, with few ready to repatriate citizens who pledged allegiance to a group sworn to their destruction, but who might be hard to legally prosecute. The SDF does not want to hold them indefinitely.
The fate of Baghdadi is also a mystery. He has led the group since 2010, when it was still an underground al-Qaeda offshoot in Iraq.
Still a threat
Its capacity then for strategic retreats in hard times, followed by rebounds when circumstances changed, has prompted numerous warnings that Daesh’s defeat has not ended the threat it poses to the region.
Daesh suffered crippling defeats in 2017, when Iraq recaptured Mosul, the SDF seized its Syrian capital of Raqqa, and the Damascus government pushed it east to the Euphrates.
But in Iraq it has switched to guerrilla hit-and-run tactics, aimed at undermining the Baghdad government. It has also claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in swathes of northeast Syria held by the SDF, including one last month that killed four Americans.
That attack came soon after Trump pledged to pull out, saying Daesh was already defeated, rattling allies and prompting defense secretary Jim Mattis to resign.
Turkey, which regards the SDF’s strongest component, the Kurdish YPG, as terrorists, has threatened to march deeper into northern Syria to drive it back.
On Friday US Army General Joseph Votel, who oversees US forces in the Middle East as head of Central Command, said the end of the territorial caliphate would lead to a more dispersed, harder-to-detect network of fighters waging guerrilla warfare.
That should require continued help from Washington, he said.