Turkey has pushed back at a statement issued by US State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert on Monday expressing “serious concern” over the current situation in the northern Syrian city of Afrin, which has been taken under control by the Turkish military and Free Syrian Army (FSA) militia as part of its two-month-long offensive in the neighboring country.
“The fighting in western Syria over the last two months, including in Afrin, has distracted from the defeat ISIL campaign and provided opportunity for ISIL to begin reconstituting in some areas,” Nauert said in a statement late Monday.
“The United States is deeply concerned over reports from Afrin City over the last 48 hours. It appears the majority of the population of the city, which is predominantly Kurdish, evacuated under threat of attack from Turkish military forces and Turkish backed opposition forces,” the statement said.
“This adds to the already concerning humanitarian situation in the area, with United Nations agencies reporting a displaced population in or from the Afrin district in the hundreds of thousands, who now require immediate shelter and other assistance to meet basic needs,” her statement said.
Nauert also said: “We are also concerned over reports of looting inside the city of Afrin. We have repeatedly expressed our serious concern to Turkish officials regarding the situation in Afrin.”
The US through the State Department spokesperson called on all relevant actors operating in the northwest, including Turkey, Russia and the Syrian regime, “to provide access for international humanitarian organizations, facilitate the urgent delivery of humanitarian assistance to those displaced by the violence and develop a coordinated program for the safe and voluntary return of people to their homes in Afrin City as soon as possible.”
Pentagon spokesman Rob Manning also made a statement over the implications of the Afrin operation on the anti-ISIL fight and said last on Monday, “We are very concerned about the effect fighting there has had on our defeat ISIS efforts and would like to see an end to the hostilities before [ISIL] has the opportunity to regroup in eastern Syria.”
The Turkish government under the rule of autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan slammed this statement and accused NATO ally US of “not fully understanding” the objectives of the operation. “The latest statement reveals that the US still cannot or does not want to comprehend the reason, purpose and nature of Operation Olive Branch,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Bekir Bozdağ tweeted on Tuesday.
He rejected the US claims that Turkey’s operation against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the northern Syrian district of Afrin negatively affected the ongoing struggle against ISIL, describing the accusations as “groundless and false.”
Bozdağ’s reply did not cite the looting reports but stressed that “civilians were unharmed.”
“Access to water, medicine, food and other needs were not prevented in Afrin during Operation Olive Branch,” he said.
President Erdoğan also slammed the United States on Monday over its recent comments on Turkey’s military operation in Afrin, claiming the US “tried to deceive Turkey.”
“If we are strategic partners, you will have to respect us and move along with us. You tried to deceive us. You sent 5,000 trucks of weapons there. You sent more than 2,000 trucks of ammunition there. We wanted weapons from you to buy with our money, but you did not give any to us. What kind of a strategic partnership or solidarity is this?” Erdoğan said at his ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) group meeting in Ankara.
“The US spokesperson makes a comment and says, ‘We are concerned about the situation in Afrin.’ Where were you when we transmitted our concerns to you? Where were you when we said ‘Let’s clean up the terrorist organization from there?’” he added.
Another response to US officials came from Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy, who claimed that the operation is a “counter-terrorism operation” that “in no way targets civilians.” “On the contrary, it aims to rescue the civilian population from the oppression and tyranny of a terrorist organization. Moreover, all precautions have been taken to avoid harming civilians and the civilian population has been provided with access to humanitarian aid,” Aksoy said.
“The claim that the operation conducted against terrorists in Afrin would endanger the combat against ISIL is completely groundless,” he defended. “The approach that actually undermines the combat against terrorism in Syria is the use of one terrorist organization against another and allowing this particular terrorist organization to create fait accomplis on the ground by pushing forward its separatist agenda and to make demographic changes,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Hürriyet Daily News reported on Tuesday that the Turkish Foreign Ministry undersecretary and his US counterpart would meet in the coming days, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters on Monday. “Our undersecretary will head to Washington in the coming days.”
“Turkey and the US remain fully committed to resolving outstanding issues in the bilateral relationship. We are working with Turkey to find the earliest possible date that is convenient to both sides during this time of transition at the State Department,” David Gainer, a spokesperson for the US Embassy in Ankara, told the Hürriyet Daily News.
A meeting between the Turkish foreign minister and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been scheduled for March 19 but was postponed after Tillerson’s ousting and replacement by Mike Pompeo by US President Donald Trump.
Ties between Turkey and the US have been strained over Washington’s continued partnership with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers a “terrorist organization.” The Turkish military and radical Islamist FSA militants launched Operation Olive Branch on Jan. 20 in Afrin against the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey sees as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
On Sunday the Turkish General Staff announced that the Turkish army and FSA forces had taken over control of Afrin town center and also said that only terrorist targets were being destroyed and “utmost care” was being taken to avoid harming any civilians.
However, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the PYD, and the Autonomous Administration in Afrin said in a joint statement on Sunday that they had asked civilians to leave in order to avoid atrocities and the “deaths of more civilians” now that the conflict has reached a new stage.