Turkey will strike the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), if they do not withdraw from Manbij, a former bastion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that has been taken over by predominantly Kurdish forces, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated on March 2.
Speaking to reporters outside parliament in Ankara, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey and the U.S. “must not face off against each other because of Turkey’s fight against other terrorist groups [apart from ISIL],” the main focus of the Euphrates Shield Operation in northern Syria.
“We do not want any of our allies to stand with terrorist groups. We stated earlier that Turkey will hit the YPG unless they withdraw from Manbij,” he said.
Çavuşoğlu also said that with an operation on Manbij, the aim is to leave the area to “its true owners.”
FSA ‘captures two villages from SDF’
His remarks came one day after Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels on March 1 seized two villages near al-Bab, which they captured from ISIL last week, from U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated.
Turkey regards the PYD and the YPG as terrorist organizations due to their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but the U.S. sees them as reliable partners in the fight against ISIL in northern Syria. The U.S. supports the SDF, which is comprised mainly of YPG militia and some Arab forces, in the anti-ISIL coalition.
Syrian rebels “captured the villages of Tal Turin and Qara east of al-Bab after violent clashes with the separatist YPG militia,” according to a statement issued by Hiwar Kallis, a rebel faction part of the FSA, AFP reported.
“The Euphrates Shield attacked our forces today, and the clashes are ongoing,” said Sherfan Darwish, spokesman for the Manbij Military Council which is part of the SDF.
Euphrates Shield is the name of Turkey’s ongoing operation in northern Syria.
The Observatory also confirmed that Euphrates Shield fighters had captured the two villages near Al-Bab.
“These battles mark the beginning of Euphrates Shield’s operations to take Manbij,” said the monitoring group’s head Rami Abdel Rahman.
‘Kurds cede territory to Syrian regime’
The Manbij Military Council said on March 2 that they would cede several northern villages to government forces as part of a deal brokered by regime ally Russia to avoid conflict with Turkey.
The Manbij Military Council said government troops would control a buffer zone between it and Turkey-backed rebels.
“We in the Manbij Military Council announce that we agreed with Russia to hand over villages on the front line with Euphrates Shield … to the border guards of the Syrian state,” the group said.
It said the territory to be handed over lay between Manbij and the town of al-Bab.
The Syrian border guards “will protect the line dividing the Manbij Military Council and the areas under the control of the Turkish army and Euphrates Shield,” the statement said.
Çavuşoğlu denied such a process.
Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said Manbij is the “next target” after al-Bab, stressing that the SDF should leave Manbij.
“They [SDF] should leave Manbij because it has no relationship to them. Manbij belongs to Arabs. Likewise, Raqqa completely belongs to Arabs. We are receiving information that there are around 2,500 DEASH members there,” Erdoğan told journalists on his way back from Pakistan, using an Arabic acronym for the jihadist group.
Çavuşoğlu said Ankara and Washington are currently discussing how to implement a possible Raqqa operation and how Turkey would support the operation.
“There are other coalition countries that are active in the field like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. We are discussing issues such as how we will do air support,” he added.
Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend said March 1 that talks were underway with Turkey on the role it might play in liberating the militant group’s de facto capital of Raqqa.
“We are engaged in discussions with the Turks on how they might participate in the liberation of Raqqa and I don’t know what the numbers of their participation might be Townsend said.
Erdoğan said Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters could lead the Raqqa offensive.
Kurds to be involved in Raqqa op: Townsend
Townsend said Kurds would have some role in the operation to liberate Raqqa of ISIL, adding that the YPG wanted to have good relations with Turkey.
“There are going to be Kurds assaulting Raqqa for sure. The number, the size of them, and how many Kurdish units are participating in that, I can’t really say right now,” Townsend said.
“I’ve talked to their leaders and we’ve watched them operate and they continually reassure us that they have no desire to attack Turkey, that they are not a threat to Turkey, in fact that they desire to have a good working relationship with Turkey. And I have seen absolutely zero evidence that they have been a threat to, or have supported any attacks on, Turkey from Northern Syria over the last two years,” he added.
The Turkish-led Euphrates Shield operation began last August to improve security, support coalition forces, and eliminate the terror threat along the Turkish border using FSA fighters backed by Turkish artillery and jets.
Townsend also said Russian and Syrian aircraft bombed positions held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Arab Coalition near the Syrian town of al-Bab on Feb. 28, inflicting casualties.
“It became apparent that the strikes were falling on some of the Syrian coalition positions. Some quick calls were made to our deconfliction channels and the Russians acknowledged and stopped bombing there,” Townsend said.
The Russian Defense Ministry denied conducting air strikes but confirmed communication through the hotline.
“During these talks, the U.S. Air Force representative expressed concern that Syrian and Russian airplanes could inflict an unintentional strike on US-controlled armed groups while carrying out combat missions against (ISIL) south of Manbij,” the Russian ministry said in a statement.
“This information was taken into account by the Russian command. Not one strike was carried out by Syrian or Russian aviation on the districts pointed out by the American side,” it added.