Ankara (AFP) – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday said Turkish forces would soon besiege the town of Afrin as a Turkish cross-border offensive targeting a Kurdish militia enters its second month.
On January 20, Ankara launched an air and ground operation supporting Syrian rebels against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the Afrin region of northern Syria.
Turkey views the YPG as a Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.
“In the coming days, swiftly, we will lay siege to the centre of the town of Afrin,” Erdogan told parliament.
While some analysts say Turkey and pro-Ankara Syrian rebels have made slow advances, Erdogan defended the operation’s progress, saying it was to avoid putting the lives of both its troops and civilians needlessly “at risk”.
“We did not go there to burn it down,” he said, insisting the operation’s aim was to “create a safe and livable area” for Syrian refugees inside Turkey, who fled across the border after the conflict began in 2011 and who now number more than three million.
The Turkish army says 32 of its troops have been killed in the process.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor, Syrian rebels and Turkish forces have taken 35 villages since the start of the operation, most of them bordering Afrin.
And Turkish security expert Abdullah Agar said troops involved in operation “Olive Branch” had captured around 300 square kilometres (120 square miles) of territory.
Over the past month, 238 Olive Branch fighters — among them both Turkish soldiers and Syrian rebels — have been killed, along with 197 YPG fighters and 94 civilians, Observatory figures show.
Ankara strongly denies there have been any civilian casualties.
– Warning Damascus –
Jana Jabbour, a political science professor at Sciences Po university in Paris, said the Turks were “struggling to move forward” because of the “organisation of the Kurdish YPG forces and their combativeness”.
She said it was important to distinguish between political rhetoric, “even political propaganda”, and the reality on the ground.
On the ground, Turkish fighting was now focused around the area of Arab Wiran in northeast Afrin, the Observatory said.
If captured, pro-Ankara forces would control 50 continuous kilometres of Afrin’s northern border with Turkey.
The operation is likely to be further complicated reports by the Syrian state news agency SANA that pro-government forces were expected to enter Afrin to counter the Turkish offensive.
But, in what appeared to be a thinly-veiled threat to Damascus, Erdogan on Tuesday warned Turkey would brook no interference from outside forces.
“We will block the way of those who come to help from outside the city or the region,” he said.
– Strained ties with US –
The US has called on Turkey to show restraint, warning that the offensive risked diluting the fight against the jihadists.
And Erdogan has threatened to expand the offensive to the YPG-held town of Manbij.
When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Ankara last week, the two sides agreed to work together in Syria and set up working groups on issues like Manbij where American troops are operating and which the US diplomat described as a “priority”.
In addition to its disagreements with Washington, Turkey must take into account the interests of Russia, a key Damascus ally, which controls northern Syrian airspace.
Moscow may have given the green light to the offensive, but it has previously closed the airspace to Turkish jets after a Russian plane was shot down in an area of north Syria where Turkish military observers were expected to enforce a de-escalation zone.
The offensive is broadly supported in Turkey where political parties, media and clerics speak in unison, against a backdrop of nationalist rhetoric led by Erdogan.
Only the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) does not back the operation.
Since Olive Branch got under way, Turkey has detained 786 people, 587 of whom are being held for spreading “terror propaganda” on social media, the interior ministry says, in what opponents charge is a crackdown on those criticising the operation.
Another 85 people have been held on charges of organising protests against the offensive.