Turkey’s Erdoğan ‘hopes’ Afrin to be captured ‘by this evening’

Speaking at the 46th meeting of neighborhood heads, or muhtars, at the presidential palace on Wednesday, Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he hoped the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin would be captured “by this evening.”

“The route terrorists use to enter and exit eastern Afrin will soon be closed,” Erdoğan told a gathering of muhtars in Ankara. “We will clear Afrin of terrorists, clear Manbij and east of the Euphrates River to our border with northern Iraq. We will rid them all of terrorists the same way,” said Erdoğan.

He also said the “terrorists” lack the ability to construct the tunnels in the mountains that they use. “They have partners, too. They did this all together as ‘coalition’ powers. The terrorists aren’t that smart, don’t be fooled,” he added.

“As of today, the operation’s 54th day, almost 3,500 terrorists have been neutralized and about 1,300 square kilometers of land cleared of terrorists,” he said. The Turkish General Staff also said in a statement on Wednesday morning that a total of 3,444 militants have been “neutralized” since the start of Operation Olive Branch in the Afrin region. Turkish authorities often use the word “neutralized” in their statements to imply the militants  in question either surrendered or were killed or captured.

The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia said Ankara was being unrealistic in predicting Turkish forces would capture the town of Afrin on Wednesday.  “This evening he will take all of Afrin?” said YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud. “Erdoğan is lying to the people, I don’t know how this would happen.” Mahmoud also said Ankara’s statements that civilians were being evacuated from Afrin were false.

Meanwhile, three Turkish airstrikes on Wednesday hit a checkpoint held by pro-Syrian-government Shi’ite militiamen on the road to Afrin, killing five fighters, a pro-government commander told Reuters. The Shi’ite militias, which control the nearby villages of Nubl and Zahraa, recently assumed control of the position in agreement with the Kurdish YPG militia — the stated target of a Turkish offensive in the Afrin region, the commander said. The air strike also wounded two Kurdish fighters.

Pro-Syrian government forces also shelled Turkish positions in northern Syria on Wednesday. The Shi’ite militia fighters used artillery to target the Turkish positions in the town of Marea, north of Aleppo, the commander told Reuters.

Erdoğan also told the muhtars the country is in need of new anthems like Turkey’s national anthem to describe events such as the public’s resistance against a military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 and the ongoing military operation in Afrin. Erdoğan said even his grandchildren are parading around the house to the sounds of the Mehter March (of the Ottoman Janissaries) and that Turkish soldiers should march to the accompaniment of new anthems similar to the Mehter March.

“For instance, we don’t have a poem, a march, that truly describes our 34-year-long fight against [Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)] terrorism. I recently talked to friends about this. Why can’t we write a song for the ongoing Operation Olive Branch in Afrin? I don’t want to say like Turkey’s national anthem because they would not live up to that level, but one like the Mehter March? We also don’t have a poem or anthem for the July 15 legend that will describe it like in the words of [Mehmet] Akif in the Çanakkale [poem] and the national anthem,” Erdoğan said.

The lyrics of Turkey’s national anthem, officially adopted on March 12, 1921 — two-and-a-half years before the Oct. 29, 1923 establishment of the nation — was written by prominent Turkish poet Mehmet Akif both as a motivational musical saga for the troops fighting in the Turkish War of Independence and as an inspirational anthem for a republic that was yet to be established.

Meanwhile, a senior official of the Syrian Kurdish-led forces on Tuesday accused the Turkish government of settling Arab and Turkmen families in the villages captured in the Turkish army’s assault in the Kurdish region of Afrin.

Kurdistan24 has reported that Redur Xelil, in charge of foreign relations for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the Kurdish YPG militants are the key component, said in an online statement that Turkey was conducting a policy of intentional demographic change in Afrin.

“The Turkish government is settling Turkmen and Arab families in the villages of Afrin that it occupied after forcing out its people and is distributing the belongings of the people of Afrin to the new settlers,” he said.

Kurdistan24 stated that if the claims are true, the actions would amount to ethnic cleansing. Various forms of forcible transfer of populations, especially of ethnic or religious groups, are considered war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

The report said footage released by Turkish-backed Syrian militiamen shows their members saying they are taking the Kurdish villages and houses for their own fighters and families. However, a senior Turkish official said the accusation was “absolutely false,” Reuters reported.

The senior Turkish official said: “The claim that Arabs and Turkmen are being placed in Afrin is absolutely false … A transfer of population to that region to change the demographic structure is out of the question.”

Turkey launched its offensive against the YPG on Jan. 20, claiming that Kurdish militias, which it argues are an offshoot of the outlawed PKK, represent a “terrorist” threat to its southern borders. According to human rights organizations, over 200 civilians have been killed as a result of the ongoing offensive, with scores more injured.

A Turkish military operation on Tuesday against the PKK in Diyarbakır saw the death of three soldiers and the wounding of four others. A press release on the website of the Diyarbakır Governor’s Office said a roadside explosive device caused the casualties as the army was carrying out its operation in Diyarbakir’s northern Dicle district. Turkish authorities have recently ordered on-and-off curfews in the rural areas of several provinces to fight the PKK.

Meanwhile, another Turkish soldier was killed in the Turkish military’s ongoing operation in Afrin. The official number of troops killed in Afrin thus rose to 43, with over 200 others wounded in the offensive on the US-armed Kurdish YPG, a coalition ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL) in Syria.

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