Erdogan vows to clear ‘terrorists’ from Manbij

Turkish tanks have been stationed near the Syrian border as part of the operation ‘Olive Branch’ that aims to oust the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia from its enclave of Afrin. (AFP)
Updated 29 January 2018
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Erdogan vows to clear ‘terrorists’ from Manbij

ANKARA: The Turkish president promised on Sunday to clear the entire Syrian border of “terrorists” after Ankara urged Washington to withdraw its military from a Kurdish-held town.
The call followed new commitments from the US to cease supplying weapons to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey has been fighting in northern Syria for more than a week.
As Turkish troops intensified the Olive Branch operation in Afrin on Sunday, Turkey continued to warn that the offensive would move eastwards to Manbij, where hundreds of US troops are based.
“The terrorists in Afrin and Manbij cannot run from the painful end that awaits them,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan told members of his party in northern Turkey.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday it was “compulsory for the US to withdraw from Manbij as soon as possible.”
Turkey says an offensive against Manbij, about 100 km from the current operation, is an extension of its plan to remove what it describes as a terror threat along its border with Syria.
But if it goes ahead, the offensive would move the Turkish operation into a new level of military and diplomatic complexity, pulling in different groups and parties in the area.
H.R. McMaster, national security adviser to US President Donald Trump, spoke with Erdogan’s chief foreign policy adviser on Saturday to attempt to rebuild broken trust between the two countries.
According to Turkish press reports, McMaster repeated that weapons will no longer be delivered to the YPG. The same commitment was given many times to Ankara in recent months by both Trump and his Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Manbij is located 30 km west of the Euphrates and was captured from Daesh by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2016. The SDF are backed by the US and dominated by the YPG.
The town, which has a mixed ethnic population including Arabs and Kurds, has been one of the main fronts for the anti-Daesh coalition’s ground war. Following its liberation, the Pentagon preferred that the YPG remained in the town to guard it against a potential Daesh counter attack.
But Ankara is concerned that the Syrian Kurdish militias want to establish a corridor to the Mediterranean coast by linking the regions they administer.
Turkey has called for the YPG to be withdrawn from Manbij and has been enraged by the US support for the group. The militia is an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is seen by Ankara and many Western countries as a terror group. The US and Turkey are suppose to be allies through their memberships of NATO.
“It is unthinkable for a strategic ally to arm and train what its decades long strong ally consider to be a terrorist organization,” Mehmet Ogutcu, a former diplomat and chairman of the Bosphorus Energy Club, told Arab News.
He said Turkey’s request for the US to withdraw from Manbij is to avoid completely rupturing ties between the two countries.
Dr. Eray Gucluer, a terror expert from Altinbas University in Istanbul and at the think tank ASAM, said: “The US is currently losing power and prestige in the region, and it wouldn’t afford keeping its soldiers in Manbij if Turkey conducts an operation.”
Ali Semin, a Middle East expert at Istanbul-based think-tank BILGESAM, thinks Turkey would prefer to resolve the Manbij situation through agreement with the US.
“There will probably be no military offensive or Turkey may use Free Syrian Army fighters to avoid any direct clash with the US if the American soldiers remain there. It was the same case when Turkey agreed with Russia before the operation to Afrin as Russian troops were deployed in the region,” he told Arab News.
As concern grows over Manbij, fighting ramped up in Afrin on Sunday, with Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters capturing a strategic hill.
AP reported that constant shelling and clashes could be heard at the Turkish border town Kilis as Turkish aircraft whizzed above and plumes of smoke rose in the distance.
The Turkish forces have been trying to capture Bursayah hill since the offensive started on Jan. 20.
The Turkish military said its soldiers and allied Syrian opposition fighters captured the hill, assisted by airstrikes, attack helicopters, armed drones and howitzers.
“In its previous cross-border operation, Turkey’s aim was to secure a safe zone to resettle the Syrians who fled war in their country, but this time Turkey wants to clear these zones completely from all kinds of terror threat until the border with Iraq,” Semin said.
“Manbij bears a strategic importance for Kurdish militia to reach the Mediterranean shores. It is exactly the establishment of such a YPG-controlled ‘terror corridor’ that Ankara wants to block along its border.”


US-backed fighters closing in on Daesh gunmen in eastern Syria

Updated 16 February 2019
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US-backed fighters closing in on Daesh gunmen in eastern Syria

  • President Donald Trump said the White House will make an announcement about Syria on Saturday
  • Groups said that some 200 Daesh gunmen surrendered Friday

BAGHOUZ, Syria: A US-backed force in Syria is closing in on Daesh militants in a tiny area less than a square kilometer (square mile) in eastern Syria, and will soon declare the defeat of the militant group, a commander with the group said Saturday.
The capture of the last pocket still held by Daesh fighters in the village of Baghouz would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the extremist group’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq — their so-called “caliphate” that at the height of the group’s power in 2014 controlled nearly a third of both Iraq and Syria.
“We will very soon bring good news to the whole world,” said Ciya Furat, a commander with the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, speaking at a news conference at the Al-Omar Oil Field Base in the Deir Ezzor province.
President Donald Trump said the White House will make an announcement about Syria and the fight against Daesh by the end of Saturday.
“We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate and that will be announced over the next 24 hours,” Trump told journalists at the White House on Friday.
An Associated Press team in Baghouz Saturday, hundreds of meters away from the last speck of land where Daesh militants were holed up, saw several aircraft overhead and two airstrikes hit the area. SDF fighters said were fired by the US-led coalition.
The Syrian Democratic Forces declared the final push to capture the village a week ago after more than 20,000 civilians, many of them the wives and families of foreign fighters, were evacuated.
Since then, SDF commanders say they have been surprised to discover that there were hundreds more civilians in the enclave, after they were brought up by the militants from underground tunnels. Their presence has slowed down the SDF advance.
Furat, the SDF commander, said Daesh fighters are now besieged in an area that is about 700 square meters (840 square yards). He said that SDF fighters were able to liberate 10 of their colleagues that were held by Daesh.
Furat’s comments were carried by Kurdish news agencies, including Hawar News.
“We are dealing with this small pocket with patience and caution. It is militarily fallen but civilians are used as human shields,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told The Associated Press. Bali added that the SDF believes that Daesh gunmen are also holding previously kidnapped Syrians in the area.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said SDF fighters are almost in full control of the area once controlled by extremists, adding that there might still be Daesh fighters hiding in a network of underground tunnels.
The Observatory said that some 200 Daesh gunmen surrendered Friday, days after about 240 others surrendered and were taken by SDF fighters and members of the US-led coalition.
“The defeat of Daesh will come within days,” Furat said. He added that after the physical defeat of Daesh, the SDF “will continue in its fight against Daesh sleepers cells.”
Despite the expected defeat on the ground, activists and residents say Daesh still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency. The group has claimed responsibility in recent months for deadly attacks, mostly in Iraq, more than a year after the Iraqi government said the extremists have been defeated after losing the northern city of Mosul in 2017, the largest they held.