Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, said on Sunday that American troops will not be withdrawn from Manbij, a strategically important city in northern Syria.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Saturday called on the US to withdraw personnel from the Kurdish-held town of Manbij amid tension that escalated between Ankara and Washington following Turkey’s operation in the Kurdish-controlled Afrin region of Syria. Gen. Votel told CNN that that withdrawing US forces from Manbij is “not something we are looking into.”
Meanwhile, Çavuşoğlu has said the US has chosen the “wrong partner” in the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria as he referred to the Kurdish militia group YPG/PKK.
ÇAVUŞOĞLU: US PICEKED THE WRONG PARTNER
In an article published in op-ed section of the New York Times on Sunday, Çavusoğlu wrote that “American reliance on the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is a self-inflicted error when the US already has a capable partner in Turkey. “We have no doubt that the US will see the damage this policy is inflicting on the credibility of the NATO alliance and correct its policy by putting its allies and long-term interests first again.”
He said Turkey, however, could not afford to wait for “eventual and inevitable course corrections.” “Paying lip service to understand Turkey’s security concerns does not remove those threats and dangers.” Terming ISIL as a “common enemy”, Çavuşoğlu wrote that “The victory against the group could not have been possible without Turkey’s active contributions.”
In the article, Çavuşoğlu talked about how an impasse had been created between US and Turkey. “An impasse has been created between us by the US’ choice of local partner in this war: a group that the American government itself recognizes as a terrorist organisation. “The so-called People’s Protection Units, or YP., is simply the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization by another name,” he said. “The groups have adopted different names and developed convoluted structures, but that does not cloak their reality.”
He said the YPG/PKK terrorists across the borders in Iraq and Syria were using weapons and training provided by the United States. “A NATO ally arming a terrorist organization that is attacking another NATO ally is a fundamental breach of everything that NATO stands for. It is a policy anomaly that needs to be corrected,” he added.
Mentioning about “an increase in threats posed by the YPG and ISIL encampments in Syria,” he wrote: “We had to act, and so Turkey has launched Operation Olive Branch against the terrorists in Afrin.”
Stating that the operation has a “clear objective”, he defended that “The targets are the terrorists, their shelters, their weapons and related infrastructure. The Turkish Army is acting with utmost precaution to avoid harming civilians. “Turkey will continue the mission until terrorists are wiped out. Turkey will not consent to the creation of separatist enclaves or terrorist safe havens that threaten its national security and are against the will of the Syrian people.”
BOZDAĞ: TURKEY CANNOT OVERLOOK “TERROR STATE” BID ON BORDER
Also on Monday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ has stated that it is irrational to expect Turkey to overlook attempt to build a terror state on its border. Speaking at the Jerusalem Meeting in İstanbul, Bozdag, who is also the Turkish government’s spokesman, said that “Our Kurdish brothers are not the target of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in northwestern Syria.”
He said the goal of the Afrin operation is to eliminate the PYD/PKK terrorist group from the region as well as to ensure safety and security for the civilians, including Turkmen, Arabs, Kurds and other ethnic groups, living there. He added the operation was being carried out with respect for the state of Syria, its territorial integrity, sovereignty and political unity, and would continue in this vein. “Turkey will withdraw from the region after the operation reaches to success,” he said.
At least 597 PYD/PKK and ISIL militants have been “neutralized” since the beginning of Operation Olive Branch in Syria, the Turkish General Staff said on Monday. Turkish authorities often use the word “neutralized” in their statements to imply that the militants in question either surrendered or were killed or captured.
The military has also said that Turkish Armed Forces had destroyed 44 terrorist targets in airstrikes that were carried out overnight and only terror targets were being destroyed and the “utmost importance and sensitivity” were being used to not harm civilians. It added that four Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) members were slightly injured during the operation. The operation “successfully” continues as planned, said the statement.
Also on Monday, a rocket allegedly fired by PYD/PKK from Syria’s Afrin struck an office building in a civilian area in Turkey’s southern border province of Hatay. The rocket hit a wall of the building in Reyhanlı district. A car was also damaged in the attack. No casualties were reported.
Separately, another PYD/PKK rocket hit an olive garden in Öncüpınar district of southern border province of Kilis at 2:30 p.m. local time. No casualties were reported in this attack as well. Turkish Armed Forces responded to both attacks with air and land fire.
Moreover, according to pro-Kurdish news sources, the ancient Ayn Dara temple near Afrin’s Ayn Dara village to the northwest of Aleppo has been severely damaged in the Turkish air strike. Ayn Dara is significant for its resemblance with the Temple of Suleiman, mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as The First Temple, and was built before 1300 B.C. The temple had managed to survive to this day despite all the wars and invasions in the region.
The temple, affiliated with Ishtar or goddess Astarte by some sources and with Ba’al Hadad by others, has reportedly been severely damaged after being bombed by fighter jets as part of the Turkish Armed Forces’ operation against Afrin. UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has also stated that the Ayn Dara temple had been damaged severely in Turkey’s operation.
CIVILIAN CASUALTIES INCREASE IN AFRIN
The number of civilian casualties continues to increase in Afrin as Turkey’s military operation, supported by the FSA, enters its second week. Ekram Salih, a Kurdistan24 Correspondent in Afrin, reported that civilians were the majority of victims in Turkish airstrikes carried out in the region, with dozens of them killed and injured since the air campaign began.
“So far, 37 civilians have been killed, 12 of whom were children. The rest were mostly women,” Salih reported, referring to date provided by Afrin’s main hospital. Some of those injured shared their stories with Kurdistan24 while in hospital after being struck by Turkish airstrikes near the city of Afrin.
“All I remember was the sound of a huge explosion. The rooftop of the house was destroyed. I tried to rescue my children. Some of them, I just saw parts of their body,” said an ethnically Arab man lying down in hospital.
“My grandchild died in my hands. We tried to transfer wounded family members to the hospital, but another strike hit us,” he continued. “The second strike killed all who were with me. Only I survived. I don’t know how I survived.”
Outside of Afrin’s Hospital, many who were hit by airstrikes are also being treated by the Kurdish Red Crescent Hospital in the area.
“The death toll is likely to increase as a result of poor health conditions for many of the injured civilians,” one doctor in Afrin Hospital told Kurdistan24.
British journalist Robert Fisk has also reported from a hospital in the besieged Syrian enclave of Afrin that many of the victims of Turkish air strikes are ordinary civilians, including children and refugees. “You should see the dead when they come in, and the state of the wounded with the blood on them,” he quoted Jawan Palot, director of the Afrin Hospital, as saying.
He says that the hospital records show that 34 civilians, 10 of them children, were killed in Turkish air attacks as opposed to only 11 YPG militants. “Was this not a replay of every Israeli air assault on ‘terrorists’ in southern Lebanon, of every NATO air strike on ‘Serb forces’ in ex-Yugoslavia, of every US attack on Iraqi ‘forces’ in 1991 and 2003 and on Afghanistan and on Mosul last year?” Fisk asked.
“All were ‘surgical’ operations, carried out with absolute precision to avoid ‘collateral damage’, of course, and all left a litter of tens or hundreds or thousands of dead and wounded. Our air assaults, Israeli, NATO, American, Turkish, feed off each other in lies and victims,” he said.
Pro-Kurdish Fırat news agency (ANF) has also reported that the Turkish army has massacred civilians in Gubele village of Afrin’s Sherawa district through airstrikes. According to reports, 8 civilians died and 7 others got wounded as a result of the bombardment. It was reported that all the victims were from Kino family. According to reports 10 other civilians lost their lives in the attack and their bodies have not been reached yet as search efforts continue.
Turkey launched a military operation on Afrin ten days ago against the YPG. The operation is ongoing, with multiple active frontlines and casualties reported on both sides. Recently, UN agencies suspended their activities in the area and “strongly denounced the rising number of child casualties.” Turkey has claimed it is only targeting YPG positions in Afrin in a bid to drive the Kurdish fighters, which Ankara views as terrorists, out of northwestern Syria.