Turkish-backed Syrian rebels say they are now advancing towards Manbij in northern Syria, a city captured earlier this month by Kurdish militias, as the US describes the weekend clashes between the two sides as “unacceptable”.
Turkey’s military said on Monday that the Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) had cleared “militants” from 10 more villages in northern Syria, as part of a cross-border offensive that had already captured a string of settlements south of the Syrian frontier town of Jarablus.
The statement did not say whether these “militants” belonged to the Islamic State (ISIS) group or Kurdish militias0.
“Turkey is determined to take steps to guarantee its citizens’ security at home and in neighboring countries,” President Tayyip Erdogan said in a message on the eve of Tuesday’s national Victory Day holiday.
“After seizing control of the border town of Jarablus, the FSA fighters moved under Turkish air cover to control villages such as Amarna, Yousef Beq and Ain Al Baida within hours,” a journalist said.
“But their main target is to take over Manbij,” he added. “YPG fighters maintain a significant presence along that area with their local allies.”
Weeks ago, the US-backed SDF group, which consists Kurdish militas primarely, retrieved Manbijn form ISIS hands. However, Turkey interferred to prevent the Kurdish militiaas from staying in the city and adding it to the areas they control.
Turkish forces have been pressing on with a two-pronged operation inside Syria against ISIS fighters and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) since Wednesday, shelling over a dozen targets.
Ankara said it had killed 25 Kurdish “terrorists” in strikes on YPG positions on Sunday, a day after a Turkish soldier died in a rocket attack it blamed on Kurdish forces.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter called on Turkey to stay focused on fighting Islamic State militants and not to target Kurdish elements of Syrian rebel forces, which Washington backs. The White House said a continued Turkish push would complicate the fight against Islamic State.
“We have called upon Turkey … to stay focused on the fight against ISIL and not to engage Syrian Defense Forces, and we’ve had a number of contacts over the last several days,” Carter said in a media briefing, using an acronym for Islamic State.
“We want to make clear that we find these clashes – in areas where ISIS is not located – unacceptable and a source of deep concern,” said Brett McGurk, US special envoy for the fight against ISIS.
“We call on all armed actors to stand down,” he wrote on Twitter, citing a US Department of Defense statement.
The Pentagon described the clashes, which it said were in areas where Islamic State is not located, as “unacceptable and a source of deep concern” and called on all sides to stand down.
At a news conference on Monday with a visiting European official, Turkish European Affairs Minister Omer Celik said: “No one has the right to tell us which terrorist organization we can fight against.” He did not however mention the U.S. comments.
Turkey’s operation aims to push the YPG back across the Euphrates River to prevent it joining up the region east of the river already under its control with a Kurdish-held area to the west.