President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday Turkish forces would sweep Kurdish fighters from the Syrian border and could push all the way east to the frontier with Iraq -- a move which risks a possible confrontation with US forces allied to the Kurds.
The Turkish offensive in northwest Syria’s Afrin region against the Kurdish YPG militia has opened a new front in the multi-sided Syrian civil war but has strained ties with NATO ally Washington.
Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group but the militia has played a prominent role in US-led efforts to combat the hard-line Islamic State in Syria.
Since the start of the incursion, dubbed “Operation Olive Branch” by Ankara, Erdogan has said Turkish forces would push east towards the town of Manbij, potentially putting them in confrontation with US troops deployed there.
“Operation Olive Branch will continue until it reaches its goals. We will rid Manbij of terrorists, as it was promised to us, and our battles will continue until no terrorist is left until our border with Iraq,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.
Washington has angered Ankara by providing arms, training and air support to the Syrian Kurdish forces. Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a deadly insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast for three decades.
“How can a strategic partner do this to its partner?” Erdogan said, referring to the US. “If we will wage a battle against terror together, we will either do this together or we will take care of ourselves.”
Three Turkish soldiers and 11 of their Syrian rebel allies have been killed in clashes so far, Turkey’s health minister said on Friday. A further 130 people were wounded, he said, without saying if they were civilians or combatants.
Turkey said it had killed at least 343 militants since the operation started. The Kurdish-led forces have said Turkey was exaggerating the number it had killed.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG, said 308 fighters from the Turkish side had been killed in the first week of the incursion.
Forty-three SDF fighters had died, including eight women, the SDF said. In addition, 134 civilians had been wounded and 59 killed, it said.