Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, expressed concern on Monday about Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army (FSA) militants controlling the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
“Sure, I am worried about it,” Mogherini said in response to a question related to the capture of Afrin by Turkish military forces and jihadist FSA militants.
“We have stated from the beginning that military escalation and military activities not directly targeted against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] or Al-Nusra, UN-designated terrorist organizations, should be absolutely avoided,” Mogherini said.
Mogherini stated that the EU would discuss the situation in Afrin with the Special UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. She also stressed that the main objective should be putting an end to the conflict in the country.
“The common sense and common work were aiming at de-escalating military activities, not escalating them,” the EU official continued. “This was first and foremost the attempts of the three guarantors of Astana process, Turkey, Russia, and Iran started in Astana. We welcome that and now are calling for coherence.”
Mogherini mentioned that the three countries are expected to work on de-escalation zones and make sure that reality is reflected on the ground.
Damascus also demanded on Monday that Turkey’s military leave Afrin after Turkish troops seized the region’s main town from Syrian Kurdish fighters over the weekend. “The announcement of the Turkish regime’s president that his invading forces control Afrin is illegitimate,” the Foreign Ministry said in a letter to the United Nations. “Syria demands the invading forces withdraw immediately from the Syrian lands they have occupied.”
TURKEY’S EU MINISTER ÇELİK SLAMS MOGHERINI
Turkey’s EU Minister Ömer Çelik slammed top EU diplomat Mogherini’s voicing of concerns about the Turkish army’s ongoing operation in Syria’s Afrin district against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), claiming Turkey’s “sole objective is to fight against terrorism and to protect its borders.”
“The EU has been pursuing a wrong policy toward Turkey’s fight against terrorism from the very start. Instead of pledging support, they have only been criticizing,” Çelik said in a written message on Monday, in response to Mogherini’s earlier statement in Brussels.
“They tell us to fight only against terror organizations listed on the UN’s terror list. Are we going to wait for years so that terror organizations that launch rockets on our soil be listed on the UN list?” Çelik said. He said that although the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) “changed its name” in Syria, this would not change the fact that the YPG and the PKK are “the same thing in the eyes of Turkey.”
In reference to a recent European Parliament resolution that referred to the YPG as “Kurdish forces,” Çelik said efforts to depict a terror organization as the representative of all Kurds are “inhumane.” “We are not producing new clashes. We are fighting against the establishment of a terror corridor. We are not just watching these events like others. We have to save the oppressed from the hands of terrorist organizations,” he added.
Turkey’s sole objective in Afrin in northern Syria is to “clear the border of terrorists” and to eliminate potential threats to its national security, autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, stressing that the Turkish army is not in Afrin as an “invasion” force.
“We have now put a comma down and, God willing, will make it a full stop. We won’t be limited to this operation. There will be extensions. They will also be sorted out. Our intention is not to invade but to carry out operations to cleanse terrorists and eliminate terrorist threats to our country,” Erdoğan said at a ceremony held for newly appointed judges and prosecutors on Monday in Ankara.
The president said a total of “3,622 YPG terrorists have been neutralized so far.” “We have completed an important stage of Operation Olive Branch by taking control of the city center of Afrin. We will continue this process until we have entirely abolished the corridor through Manbij, Ayn al-Arab, Tel-Abyad, Ras al-Ayn and Qamıshlı,” Erdoğan stressed.
DEPUTY PM BOZDAĞ: TURKEY WILL WITHDRAW ITS FORCES FROM AFRIN
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ told reporters on Monday that Turkish forces will withdraw from Afrin, leaving it to its “real owners,” once it has been cleared of “terrorists.” “We are not permanent in Afrin, and we are certainly not invaders. Our goal is to hand the region back to its real owners after clearing it of terrorists,” Bozdağ said.
Bozdağ said the capture of the town of Afrin as part of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch had significantly reduced threats to its borders. Bozdağ also stated that Turkey had collected “most” of the weapons given to Kurdish fighters by the United States, after the YPG left the arms behind as they fled town.
Moreover, a Syrian Kurdish official from Afrin told Reuters on Monday that more than 200,000 people who fled the Turkey-led offensive in Afrin are without shelter or access to food and water in nearby areas. “The people with cars are sleeping in the cars, the people without are sleeping under the trees with their children,” Hevi Mustafa, a top member of the Kurdish civil authority in the Afrin area, told Reuters by phone.
ICRC: TURKISH KIZILAY’S CREDIBILITY AMONG KURDS IS CLOSE TO ZERO
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has also called on Monday for greater access to the civilian population of Afrin, declaring that the Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay) lacked credibility among the Syrian Kurds after Turkey’s military operation.
ICRC President Peter Maurer, speaking on return from a two-week trip to Syria, Iraq and Iran, told reporters in Geneva: “…the credibility of a Turkish Red Crescent working in Afrin with the Kurdish population is close to zero.”
The ICRC is helping some of the thousands of displaced civilians who have fled Afrin to villages near Aleppo, but needs regular access to Afrin, where civilians have the right to neutral, impartial aid and the right to leave or stay, he said.
Turkish government on Tuesday blasted ICRC’s questioning the credibility of the Turkish Red Crescent’s humanitarian aid work in Afrin. Hami Aksoy, a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman, “condemned” the statement by Maurer and stated that The Turkish Red Crescent’s humanitarian aid operations are carried out “on a global scale regardless of people’s language, religion, nationality, or geographical background.”
The Turkish Red Crescent’s humanitarian work has been praised “as exemplary by the United Nations and the international community since the beginning of the Syrian crisis,” he added. Blasting the “unacceptable” ICRC statement as being “divorced from the truth,” Aksoy stressed that the ICRC is one of the organizations that should be able to best appreciate “the unprecedented sacrifice and determination” of the Turkish Red Crescent.”
He criticized such a statement being directed at the Red Crescent of a country “that is home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds within its borders.”
OVER 40 CSOs DEMAND TURKISH FORCES AND FSA TO WITHDRAW FROM AFRIN
On Sunday, dozens of Turkey’s Kurdish and leftist groups appealed to world powers to press for Turkish and Syrian rebel forces to withdraw from Afrin and avoid a “human tragedy” in the northwestern Syrian town.
More than 40 political parties, associations and unions issued the statement just hours after the Turkish army and its Syrian rebel allies swept into Afrin, driving out Kurdish YPG fighters following an eight-week air and ground offensive.
They called on the United Nations, European powers, Muslim countries and members of the US-led military coalition against ISIL to “take steps to immediately avert the tragedy in Afrin and get concrete results, including withdrawal of all armed forces who entered Afrin.”
The appeal came in a statement read to a news conference in Diyarbakır by Berdan Öztürk, a parliamentarian from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The statement also called on Kurdish people preparing to celebrate the spring festival of Nevroz in Turkey this week to rally “in the spirit of resistance” and in solidarity with the people of the mainly Kurdish town.
“It is the moral and conscientious duty of all humanity to stand up for the people of Afrin and to be on the side of the Afrin resistance, it is a matter which is above politics,” the groups said in the statement.
A bomb blast in a four-floor building in Afrin killed seven civilians and four FSA members overnight, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Monday. The explosion hit after FSA rebels swept into the town with Turkish forces on Sunday, declaring full control after an eight-week campaign to drive out Kurdish YPG forces.
Anadolu said the bomb, which it described as planted by terrorists, exploded as the Syrian fighters conducted a search. It ripped out a hole four meters deep and badly damaged other buildings and vehicles, it said.
At least two people attacked Turkey’s embassy in Copenhagen with petrol bombs early on Monday causing some minor damage to the exterior of the building but no injuries, police in the Danish capital said. The building was empty at the time. Police were at the scene investigating and no one had been arrested, a police official told Reuters.
Turkish forces backed by FSA militants swept into Afrin town on Sunday, raising their flag in the town center and declaring full control after an eight-week campaign to drive out Kurdish YPG militants. The fight for Afrin, a once-stable pocket of northwest Syria, has opened a new front in the country’s multi-sided civil war and highlighted the ever-greater role of foreign powers such as Turkey.
It is Turkey’s second cross-border operation into Syria during that country’s seven-year civil war. The first operation, dubbed “Euphrates Shield,” targeted what Ankara called a “terror corridor” made up of ISIL and Kurdish militants further east from Afrin along its southern frontier with Syria.
After the completion of the Euphrates Shield operation in early 2017, Turkey set up local systems of governance in the swathe of land captured, stretching from the area around Azaz, located to the northeast of Afrin, to the Euphrates River and protected by Turkish forces present there.
Turkey’s campaign in Afrin has drawn criticism in the West, including the United States and France, which have provided arms and training to the YPG and fear that the incursion could weaken international action against ISIL fighters in Syria. However, Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the PKK that has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey for decades. Turkey has been infuriated by the Western support given to the Syrian Kurdish militants.