Archive for September 2, 2016


26 August 2016 Friday

New details are coming to light in Turkey’s military operation in Syria, Euphrates Shield, which has continued with great determination.

The operation, conducted together with opposition groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), primarily aims to build new settlements in northern Syria, which will host millions of refugees who had been forced to flee the war in their homeland, according to reports.

Turkey has already accepted 2.7 million Syrian refugees, who have found shelter across 81 provinces in Turkey, many of whom live in overcrowded refugee camps. A majority still wants to emigrate to a third country.

The aim of the safety zone is to establish an area where Syrians, who are fleeing to Turkey from the Syrian regime’s violence, can be accommodated without security risks. Turkey demands the safety zone to be imposed under the umbrella of NATO, rather than be under supervision of a few countries.

Ankara is believed to be setting up such a zone in line with UN resolution No. 2170, which calls on all UN member states to mobilize to suppress the flow of foreign fighters, their financing and other support to notorious groups in Iraq and Syria. Authorities in Ankara have planned to establish temporary settlements for refugees, who have been registered in Turkey, in the southern areas of Kilis and Gaziantep provinces before building permanent settlements.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/176664/turkey-to-build-refugee-cities-on-security-zone.

August 25, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey sent more tanks into northern Syria on Thursday and gave Syrian Kurdish forces a week to scale back their presence near the Turkish border, a day after it launched a U.S.-backed cross-border incursion to establish a frontier zone free of the Islamic State group and Kurdish rebels.

Skirmishes broke out between Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, raising the potential for an all-out confrontation between the two American allies that would also jeopardize the fight against the Islamic State group in the volatile area.

Turkey’s incursion Wednesday to capture the town of Jarablus was a dramatic escalation of Turkey’s role in Syria’s war and adds yet another powerhouse force on the ground in an already complicated conflict.

But Ankara’s objective went beyond fighting extremists. Turkey is also aiming to contain the expansion by Syria’s Kurds, who have used the fight against IS and the chaos of Syria’s civil war to seize nearly the entire stretch of territory along Syria’s northern border with Turkey.

Above all, Ankara seeks to avoid Kurdish forces linking up their strongholds along the border. The U.S. has backed its NATO ally, sending a stern warning to the Syrian Kurds with whom it has partnered in the fight against IS to stay east of the Euphrates River. The river crosses from Turkey into Syria at Jarablus.

“The U.S. is interested in stopping this from becoming a confrontation between the YPG and Turkey. That would be a huge detriment to the anti-IS campaign,” said Chris Kozak, a Syria researcher at the Washington-based Institute of the Study of War, referring to the main U.S.-backed Kurdish faction fighting IS. Turkey accuses the group of links to Kurdish groups waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

Kozak said an open confrontation between Turkey and the Kurds in Syria would undo much of the progress made working with the Kurdish forces against IS in northern Syria. If there are direct clashes, the U.S. would be forced to take sides, he said, and Washington would likely side with its NATO ally, whose air base is used to launch coalition airstrikes against the extremists in Syria and Iraq.

Also, if the Syrian Kurdish forces are distracted in clashes with the Turks and have to shift resources toward front lines with Turkey or with Turkish-backed opposition groups, that “buys (IS) some breathing space,” Kozak said.

On Thursday, Turkish officials said Syrian Kurdish forces had started withdrawing east of the Euphrates River. The news was relayed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a telephone conversation with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.

Syrian Kurdish officials contacted by The Associated Press would not confirm or deny that their forces were withdrawing east. Instead, the main Syrian Kurdish faction, the YPG, said its troops had “returned to their bases” after helping liberate the northern Syrian city of Manbij from the Islamic State group earlier this month. Manbij lies west of the Euphrates about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Jarablus, and Ankara has demanded the Kurds hand it over to Syrian rebels and withdraw.

The Kurdish forces’ statement said they handed control of the city to a newly-established Manbij Military Council, made up mostly of Arab rebel fighters from the town. By day break, at least 10 more Turkish tanks crossed into Syria, Turkey’s private Dogan news agency reported. An Associated Press journalist saw three armored vehicles cross the border, followed by a heavy construction vehicle. Explosions reverberated across the border, followed by billowing gray smoke.

It remained unclear whether Turkey-backed Syrian rebels would move against IS-held towns or nearby Kurdish-controlled areas, including the town of Manbij. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency, reporting from Jarablus, said the Syrian opposition forces were working to secure the town to allow its resident’s to return, including defusing explosives inside the town or on roads leading to it. Estimates put the town’s population at 25,000.

Turkey’s defense minister, Fikri Isik, said Thursday that Turkish forces were securing the area around Jarablus. He said the Turkish-backed operation had two main goals — to secure the Turkish border area and to make sure the Syrian Kurdish forces “are not there.”

“It’s our right to remain there until” the Ankara-backed Syrian opposition forces take control of the area, Isik said. He said Turkey and the U.S. have agreed that the Syrian Kurdish forces would pull out of the northern area around Jarablus within a week.

“For now, the withdrawal hasn’t fully taken place. We are waiting for it and following it,” he told the private NTV television station. A spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition, Col. JD Dorrian, said some members of the force that seized control of Manbij went east of the river, but some remained to secure and clear land mines.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Kurdish forces appeared to be on the move south of the newly captured town of Jarablus, making the potential for all-out confrontation all the more possible overnight. The Kurdish-led group known as the Syria Democratic Forces, or SDF, was advancing south of Jarablus, taking over at least three towns in what appeared to be a push by the Kurdish-led forces to secure Manbij and the river separating it from Jarablus. The advances triggered brief clashes with the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels who had advanced south of Jarablus.

Sharwan Darwish, a spokesperson for the SDF-affiliated Manbij Military Council, said there were no direct confrontations, only warning shots. A Turkish official said he had no immediate comment on the reported clashes.

Meanwhile, U.N. officials said they had received word from Russia that it supports a 48-hour pause in fighting in and around Syria’s largest city so that humanitarian aid can be delivered to its increasingly embattled population.

Jan Egeland, who heads up humanitarian aid in the office of the U.N. Syria envoy, said the U.N. now awaits assurances from two rebel groups and written authorization from President Bashar Assad’s government before any aid convoys can go through to Aleppo amid an upsurge in fighting that has left the city nearly surrounded by Russian-backed Syrian troops.

Egeland said Russia backs a three-point U.N. plan that is to involve separate road convoys of aid delivered both from Damascus and across the Turkish border through the critical Castello Road artery into Aleppo.

“We are very hopeful that it will be a very short time until we can roll,” Egeland told reporters.

El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Mucahit Ceylan in Karkamis, Philip Issa and Zeina Karam in Beirut, and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.

August 24, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s prime minister’s office says the Turkish military and the U.S.-backed coalition forces have launched an operation to clear a Syrian border town from Islamic State militants.

The Prime Ministry said the operation launched early Wednesday by the Turkish military and the U.S.-led coalition warplanes aimed to free the IS-held town of Jarablus. The state-run Anadolu Agency says the operation began at 4 a.m. with Turkish artillery launching intense fire on Jarablus followed by Turkish warplanes bombing IS targets in the town.

It’s not clear if any Turkish or Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces have crossed the border. The agency says the operation aims to clear Turkey’s border of “terror organizations” and increase border security. It says the aim also is to “prioritize and support” Syria’s territorial integrity.

August 24, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s and the U.S.-backed coalition forces on Wednesday launched an operation to clear a Syrian border town from Islamic State militants, the office of the Turkish prime minister said.

The operation began at 4 a.m. (0100 GMT), with Turkish artillery launching intense cross-border fire on the town of Jarablus, followed by Turkish warplanes bombing IS targets in the town, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

It was not immediately clear if any Turkish or Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces crossed the border to take part in the operation. The news agency said the operation aims to clear Turkey’s border of “terror organizations” and increase border security, as well as “prioritize and support” Syria’s territorial integrity. The assault followed Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlet Cavusolgu pledge on Tuesday of “every kind” of support for operations against IS along a 100-kilometer (62-mile) stretch of Syrian frontier.

The development puts the NATO member on track for a confrontation with U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria, who have been the most effective force against IS and who are eyeing the same territory. Cavusolgu said Turkey would support twin operations stretching from the Syrian town of Afrin in the northwest, which is already controlled by Kurdish forces, to Jarablus, in the central north, which is held by the Islamic State group.

Earlier, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said some 500 Syrian rebels were massed on the Turkish side of the border in preparation for an assault, including local fighters from Jarablus. One rebel at the border told the BBC the number was as high as 1,500 fighters.

The Syrian town of Jarablus, which lies on the western bank of the Euphrates River where it crosses from Turkey into Syria, is one of the last important IS-held towns standing between Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria.

Located 20 miles (33 kilometers) from the town of Manbij, which was liberated from IS by Kurdish-led forces earlier this month, taking control of Jarablus and the IS-held town of al-Bab to the south would be a significant step toward linking up border areas under Kurdish control east and west of the Euphrates River.

In recent days Turkey has increased security measures on its border with Syria, deploying tanks and armored personnel carriers. On Tuesday, residents of the Turkish town of Karkamis, across the border from Jarablus, were told to evacuate after three mortars believed to be fired by IS militants landed there, Turkey’s Dogan news agency said.

Turkey has vowed to fight IS militants at home and to “cleanse” the group from its borders after a weekend suicide bombing at a Kurdish wedding in southern Turkey killed at least 54 people, many of them children. Turkish officials have blamed IS for the attack.

Ankara is also concerned about the growing power of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, who it says are linked to Kurdish groups waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey. The Kurdish-led group known as the Syria Democratic Forces, or SDF, recaptured Manbij from IS earlier this month, triggering concerns in Ankara that Kurdish forces would seize the entire border strip with Turkey. The U.S. says it has embedded some 300 special forces with the SDF, and British special forces have also been spotted advising the group.

Syrian activists, meanwhile, said that hundreds of Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters were gathered in the Turkish border area near Karkamis in preparation for an attack on Jarablus. Nasser Haj Mansour, an SDF official on the Syrian side of the border, said the fighters gathering in Turkey include “terrorists” as well as Turkish special forces. He declined to comment on whether the SDF would send fighters to the town, but an SDF statement said the Syrian Kurdish force was “prepared to defend the country against any plans for a direct or indirect occupation.”

The reports and rhetoric appeared to set up a confrontation between the SDF, the most effective U.S. proxy in Syria, and NATO ally Turkey. Abdel-Sattar al-Jader, a rebel commander affiliated with the SDF was killed late Monday, shortly after broadcasting a statement announcing the formation of the so-called Jarablus Military Council and vowing to protect civilians in Jarablus from Turkish “aggression.”

Al-Jader had pledged to resist Turkish efforts to take control of the city and warned Ankara against further aggression. The Jarablus Military Council blamed the killing on Turkish security agents. The Kurds’ outsized role in the Syrian civil war is a source of concern for the Syrian government as well. Fierce clashes erupted between the two sides over control of the northeastern province of Hasakeh last week, and Syrian warplanes bombed Kurdish positions for the first time, prompting the U.S. to scramble its jets to protect American troops in the area.

The Syrian government and the Kurds agreed on a cease-fire Tuesday, six days after the clashes erupted. The Kurdish Hawar News Agency said government forces agreed to withdraw from Hasakeh as part of the truce.

Syrian state media did not mention any withdrawal, saying only that the two sides had agreed to evacuate the wounded and exchange detainees. Government and Kurdish forces have shared control of Hasakeh since the early years of the Syrian war.

Issa reported from Beirut.

August 22, 2016

Chairman of Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) Bulent Yildirim said his organisation plans to provide aid to some 400,000 civilians in the Syrian city of Aleppo after opposition factions were able to lift a siege imposed by the regime forces nearly two weeks ago.

In an interview with Turkey’s Anadolu news agency, Yildirim said the organisation will deliver 100- 150 thousand loaves of bread to Aleppo every day.

“We have started a campaign in this regard. In the first phase we will send 300 trucks of flour and we hope to deliver food parcels to 400,000 people,” he said.

Yildirim said the need for assistance is high in the city, with people also needing items such as diapers and detergents to stop the spread of disease.

Yildirim expected a higher need during the Eid al-Adha holiday in a few weeks.

“Aleppo has been exposed to aerial and ground bombings. Most of the buildings in the city were destroyed while the lack of equipment makes it more difficult to save people from under the rubble,” he said.

He added: “There are ambulances in some hospitals, but they are not sufficient. The regime forces do not want even to rescue the wounded. They force people to starve and depress them with these attacks.”

Yildirim said: “We continue to send aid to Aleppo. In the first phase we sent flour, vegetables, fruits and food parcels. We also provided flour to some bakeries in the city but they stopped working.”

Yildirim stressed that there is a need for everything and not only food, including ambulances and medical equipment, as well as the restoration of destroyed hospitals.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160822-turkeys-ihh-to-provide-humanitarian-aid-to-400000-people-in-syrias-aleppo/.

August 20, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A bomb attack targeting an outdoor wedding party in southeastern Turkey killed at least 30 people and wounded 94 others, authorities said Sunday. Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said the “barbaric” attack in the city of Gaziantep, near the border with Syria, on Saturday appeared to be a suicide bombing. Other officials said it could have been the carried out by either Kurdish militants or Islamic State group extremists.

Photos taken after the explosion showed several bodies covered with white sheets as a crowd gathered nearby. The Gaziantep governor’s office early Sunday raised the death toll from 22 to 30. It said the number of wounded remained at 94.

Turkey has been rocked by a wave of attacks in the past year that have either been claimed by Kurdish militants linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party — known by its acronym PKK — or were blamed on IS. In June, suspected IS militants attacked Istanbul’s main airport with guns and bombs, killing 44 people.

The attack comes as the country is still reeling from last month’s failed coup attempt, which the government has blamed on U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers. Earlier this week, a string of bombings blamed on the PKK that targeted police and soldiers killed at least a dozen people. A fragile, 2 ½ year-long peace process between the PKK and the government collapsed last year, leading to a resumption of the three-decade-long conflict.

Simsek, interviewed on NTV television, said, “This was a barbaric attack. It appears to be a suicide attack. All terror groups, the PKK, Daesh, the (Gulen movement) are targeting Turkey. But God willing, we will overcome.” Daesh is an Arabic name for the IS group.

Simsek later traveled to Gaziantep along with the country’s health minister to visit the wounded and inspect the site of the attack. “This is a massacre of unprecedented cruelty and barbarism,” he told reporters in Gaziantep. “We … are united against all terror organizations. They will not yield.”

He told reporters it was too soon to say which organization was behind the attack. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim condemned the bombing that turned “a wedding party into a place of mourning” and vowed to prevail over the “devilish” attacks.

“No matter what this treacherous terror organization is called, we as the people, the state, and the government will pursue our determined struggle against it,” he said. A brief statement from the Gaziantep governor’s office said the bomb attack on the wedding in the Sahinbey district occurred at 10:50 p.m.

Mehmet Tascioglu, a local journalist, told NTV television, that the huge explosion could be heard in many parts of the city. Police sealed off the site of the explosion and forensic teams moved in. Hundreds of residents gathered near the site chanting “Allah is great” as well as slogans denouncing attacks.

August 30, 2016

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The Taliban have appointed a new military chief as the insurgents try to gain ground rather than talk peace under a new leadership, Taliban officials said in telephone interviews over the weekend.

They said that the appointment of Mullah Ibrahim Sadar, once a close ally of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar, heralds a commitment to confrontation at a time when multiple governments are trying to coax the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Sadar is a battle-hardened commander, who gained prominence among Taliban foot soldiers following the movement’s overthrow in 2001. The two officials both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly for the Taliban.

Sadar’s appointment coincides with an uptick in Taliban attacks against Afghan security forces. The United States has sent additional troops to Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, where its capital, Lashkar Gah, is under pressure. The provincial council head Kareem Atal earlier said roughly 80 percent of Helmand is already under Taliban control.

So far this month, Taliban fighters have attacked Afghan security forces in northern Kunduz province, briefly taking control of a district headquarters. The militants also overran a district in northern Baghlan province and in eastern Paktia province. Meanwhile, in eastern Nangarhar province, Taliban militants are fighting pitched battles with security forces. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense says its security forces are waging operations in 15 provinces.

Mohammad Akbari a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which is tasked with talking peace with insurgent groups, said there has been no progress in talks since Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May in Pakistan. Mansour was succeeded by Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, and the notorious Haqqani network gained a prominent role in the leadership structure.

“I can’t see any green light toward peace by the Taliban for Afghanistan and instead we have seen an increase in their fighting in the provinces,” Akbari told The Associated Press. Since Mansour’s death, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry has launched a stepped-up campaign to verify the identity of roughly 1.5 million Afghans living in Pakistan, many possessing Pakistani identity cards, some legally obtained and others illegally acquired. Mansour was carrying a Pakistani passport and identity card under an alias.

The crackdown has resulted in the withdrawal of thousands of suspicious identity cards. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said that in the last four years, roughly 80,000 suspicious identity cards have been revoked. He didn’t have a figure of the number of cards withdrawn in the latest campaign.

Taliban officials say their fighters, whose families are living in Pakistan, are getting caught up in the crackdown — forcing them to find shelter in Afghanistan. The officials said as a result, in order to accommodate their fighters, they need to expand their territory for practical reasons in addition to their standing military goals.

Pakistan has been bitterly criticized by the Afghan government for not doing more to arrest and expel Taliban fighters from its territory — particularly the Haqqani network, which is blamed by Afghanistan for many of the most brutal attacks. Pakistan, meanwhile, has carried out military operations in its tribal regions that border Afghanistan, and accuses Afghanistan of harboring its own Taliban insurgents who have been carrying out attacks in Pakistan.

Following last week’s militant attack on the American University in Kabul, the Afghan government sent three telephone numbers to Pakistan’s military, believed to belong to those involved in planning the attack, seeking Pakistan’s assistance in tracking down and arresting the culprits. The assault killed 13 people and wounded dozens more.

Associated Press Writers Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

Tue Aug 30, 2016

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

Syrian rebels have captured a strategic town in northern Hama province in a major offensive that threatens government loyalist towns populated by minority Christians and Alawites north of the provincial capital, rebels and a monitor said on Tuesday.

The town of Halfaya was stormed on Monday after the hardline jihadist Jund al-Aqsa alongside Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades launched a battle overnight that overran several army and pro-government checkpoints in northern Hama countryside.

The town, which is near a main road that links the coastal areas with the Aleppo-Damascus highway is only a few kilometers from the historic Christian town of Mahrada to the west.

“We are now cleansing the town after liberating it from the regime and will have more surprises in store,” said Abu Kinan, a commander in Jaish al Ezza, a rebel group that fought in the town.

A rapid collapse in government defenses allowed the rebels to also take a string of villages including Buwaydah, Zalin and Masassnah. They were threatening Taybat al Imam to the east of Halfaya.

The offensive brought them closer to the army stronghold of Soran, the army’s northern gateway to the city of Hama, the provincial capital.

A Syrian military source said airstrikes conducted by the army killed dozens of rebels and would neither deny nor confirm Halfaya had fallen to rebels. Pro-government websites said the army was sending reinforcements to retake these towns.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which confirmed the fall of the town, said jets believed to be Syrian struck rebel outposts in the area, killing at least 20 rebels.

The militant Jund al-Aqsa group deployed suicide bombers to storm army checkpoints.

Jaish al Ezza threatened in a statement to hit the Mahrada power plant near the town, one of Syria’s largest, if civilians areas in rebel-held areas were bombed in retaliation.

The rebel offensive comes after weeks of heavy Russian and Syrian army bombing of rebel controlled Hama and southern Idlib countryside that rebels say has claimed dozens of civilian lives.

Syrian army offensives backed by heavy Russian air strikes to retake territory from rebels in the Hama countryside have had limited success.

The latest gains will consolidate rebels who captured at the end of last year the strategic town of Morek, north of Hama city on a major north-south highway crucial to control of western Syria.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-rebels-idUSKCN115025.

August 30, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Clashes between Turkey’s military and Kurdish-backed Syrian forces subsided Tuesday evening after days of fighting between the two had frustrated efforts by a U.S.-led coalition to drive the Islamic State group from northern Syria.

Western officials had expressed alarm that the fighting between the two sides, both backed by the U.S. in Syria’s 5-year-old civil war, has diverted their attention from the fight against the extremist group.

In a speech Tuesday, French President Francois Hollande criticized Turkey for targeting Kurdish and Kurdish-backed fighters in Syria, while a top U.S. general ordered the sides to stop fighting one another and focus instead on the Islamic State.

Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told Pentagon reporters that the U.S. was striving to separate the parties. The Kurdish-backed Jarablus Military Council said in a statement it had agreed to a cease-fire with the Turkish military in a disputed area in north central Syria after lengthy consultations with the coalition.

The Pentagon denied reports it was monitoring a cease-fire but said Turkish forces had moved to the west, while Kurdish forces had moved east of the Euphrates River, per the insistence of Turkish and U.S. authorities.

“We welcome the calm between the Turkish military and other counter-ISIL forces in Syria,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said. “We encourage these moves as a way to prevent further hostilities and loss of life between all counter-ISIL forces operating in the area.”

Cook said the coalition is establishing communication channels “for de-conflicting operations and maneuvers in this crowded battlespace.” The Britain-based Syrian Observer for Human Rights monitoring group, which relies on contacts inside Syria, said a tense calm had prevailed in the area Tuesday evening.

Turkey’s military said three of its soldiers were wounded in northern Syria when their tank was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. A statement said “terrorists” fired the rocket west of Jarablus, where Turkish troops have been fighting Kurdish-led forces after Turkey’s Aug. 24 incursion into Syria.

One Turkish soldier was killed and three were wounded in fighting Saturday. The tough talk from Washington and Paris came as a spokesman for the Kurdish-led forces in Syria said IS militants carried out a two-pronged attack on villages south and west of the former militant stronghold of Manbij, taking advantage of the clashes between his forces and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels.

In Paris, Hollande said “multiple, contradictory interventions carry the risk of a general inflammation” of the fighting that has devastated Syria. He said he could understand Turkey’s concern about protecting its borders and fighting the Islamic State group, but he criticized Ankara’s actions against Kurdish rebels allied with the coalition fighting the extremists. France is part of the coalition.

Hollande also urged Russia to cooperate with the coalition and said he would invite President Vladimir Putin to France in October, noting Moscow should be “a player in negotiations, not a protagonist in the action.”

He said Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government uses Russian military support to carry out bombings of civilians, which “plays into the hands of extremists”. “The absolute urgency is a halt to fighting and a return to negotiations,” Hollande said. He also called for an “immediate truce” in Aleppo, a main battlefield of the war.

The Kurdish-led forces seized Manbij from IS earlier this month after a 10-week campaign. Last week, Turkey sent its troops and warplanes to back Syrian rebels in their advance on Jarablus, a town near the Turkish border and the next IS-stronghold after Manbij. That prompted clashes between the two U.S.-allies — Syrian rebels and Kurdish fighters. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish forces an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a domestic group it deems a terrorist organization.

Shervan Darwish, a spokesman for the Manbij Military Council, part of the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces, said the militants used at least three car bombs Tuesday. The SDF, aided by coalition airstrikes, repelled the attack initially, but Darwish said clashes continued. In a statement on Twitter, IS said it had seized two villages.

“The Turkish occupation of parts of Syria hampers the war against terrorism, and by targeting us (the Turkey-backed forces) gave Daesh the space to reorganize its ranks and attack us,” Darwish told The Associated Press, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

Turkish troops and the rebels they are backing are “aiming for our troops, not Daesh,” he added. Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said U.S. criticism of the scope and aims of its offensive in northern Syria is “unacceptable” and that it has summoned the U.S. ambassador over the issue.

Bilgic demanded that Washington live up to its assurances that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, withdraw to the east of the Euphrates “as soon as possible.” Turkey’s president has vowed to press ahead with the military operation until IS and Kurdish Syrian fighters no longer threaten his country. In comments published Tuesday in the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin urged U.S. officials to “revise their policy of supporting (the Kurdish-led force) at all costs.”

The Kurdish-led forces “are shamelessly using the war in Syria to create a de facto terrorist state in Syria,” the spokesman wrote. “Turkey will not allow that.” In recent months, the U.S.-led allied Kurdish forces gained control of most of the territory along the Turkey-Syria border, reinforcing the ethnic group’s aspirations for a contiguous autonomous region there.

Turkey appears determined to create a “safe zone” free of IS and the Kurds near its border. The Turkish military said Turkey-backed Syrian rebels — a mix of Islamist rebel factions — have cleared several villages of “terrorist entities” and now control an area of about 400 square kilometers (150 square miles) south and west of Jarablus.

Turkish-backed rebels posted video of their troops praying and walking in captured villages north of Manbij, across the Sajour River, a tributary of the Euphrates. Darwish said SDF forces have pulled back to south of the Sajour and into the Manbij area, a move unlikely to be accepted by Turkey, which wants them to withdraw completely east of the Euphrates.

He accused Turkey of targeting civilians and said Turkey-backed rebels shelled a village south of Jarablus, killing at least five. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said five people were killed by shelling in the village of al-Dandanieh, in rural Manbij. The Observatory said it was not clear who was behind the shelling.

Stojanovic contributed to this report from Istanbul. Associated Press writers Philip Issa in Beirut, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, and Wendy Benjaminson in Washington contributed to this report.

30 August 2016 Tuesday

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels say they are now advancing towards Manbij in northern Syria, a city captured earlier this month by Kurdish forces, as the US condemned the weekend clashes between the sides as “unacceptable”.

Turkey’s military said on Monday that the Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) had cleared fighters from 10 more villages in northern Syria, as part of a cross-border offensive that had already captured a string of settlements south of the Syrian frontier town of Jarablus.

The statement did not say whether these fighters belonged to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group or Kurdish forces.

“After seizing control of the border town of Jarablus, the FSA fighters moved under Turkish air cover to control villages such as Amarna, Yousef Beq and Ain al-Baida within hours,” Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Gaziantep on the Turkish side of the Syria-Turkey border, said.

“But their main target is to take over Manbij,” he said. “YPG fighters maintain a significant presence along that area with their local allies.”

Just weeks ago, Kurdish and Arab fighters, backed by US coalition air strikes, drove ISIL fighters out of Manbij after months of fighting.

Turkish forces have been pressing on with a two-pronged operation inside Syria against ISIL (also known as ISIS) fighters and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) since Wednesday, shelling more than a dozen targets.

“Taking on the YPG is a risk for the Turkish government,” said our correspondent. “The Kurdish group is a crucial ally for the US in its fight against ISIL in Syria.”

Meanwhile, the US Department of Defense condemned the clashes between Turkish forces and the YPG on Monday, calling them “unacceptable”.

Ankara said it had killed 25 Kurdish “terrorists” in strikes on YPG positions on Sunday, a day after a Turkish soldier died in a rocket attack it blamed on Kurdish forces

On Monday, the Pentagon called the clashes “unacceptable” and urged an immediate de-escalation.

“We want to make clear that we find these clashes – in areas where ISIL is not located – unacceptable and a source of deep concern,” said Brett McGurk, US special envoy for the fight against ISIL, also known as ISIS.

“We call on all armed actors to stand down,” he wrote on Twitter, citing a US Department of Defense statement.

Later on Monday, Ash Carter, the US defense secretary, urged Turkey to not target Kurdish elements of Syrian rebels.

“We have called upon Turkey … to stay focused on the fight against ISIL and not to engage Syrian Defense Forces, and we’ve had a number of contacts over the last several days,” Carter told reporters.

Turkey’s operation aims to push the YPG back across the Euphrates River to prevent it from joining up the region east of the river already under its control with a Kurdish-held area to the west.

US Vice President Joe Biden, visiting Ankara last week, said Washington had told the YPG to go back across the Euphrates or risk losing American support.

After Biden’s warning, Kurdish officials seemed to have acceded to Turkish demands and said they withdrew the YPG forces from Manbij.

“The YPG said they have withdrawn to the East,” said Al Jazeera’s Ahelbarra. “But activists on the ground doubt that.”

Ankara also said it had seen no evidence of this.

‘Ethnic cleansing’

Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said on Monday the YPG “needs to cross east of the Euphrates as soon as possible. So long as they don’t, they will be a target.

“In the places where it has moved, the YPG forces everyone out – including Kurds – who do not think like it does and carries out ethnic cleansing,” he added.

Cavusoglu said the ethnic composition of the area around the city of Manbij was largely Arab.

Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus on Monday also confirmed one of the key aims of Turkey’s operation in northern Syria was to prevent the creation of a corridor stretching from Iraq to the verge of the Mediterranean controlled by the YPG.

“If that happens, it means Syria has been divided,” he was quoted as saying by Turkish broadcaster NTV.

He added that all relevant parties had been informed of Turkey’s operation in Syria, including the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

But Kurtulmus denied Turkey was at war. “We are not pursuing an aim of becoming a permanent power in Syria. Turkey is not an invader. Turkey is not entering a war.”

“It’s unclear whether Turkish commanders will send ground forces all the way to Manbij to help the FSA take control of the city or only provide air cover, said Al Jazeera’s Ahelbarra.

“Either way, the conflict has become deepened with multiple frontlines and agendas at play.”

Source: al-Jazeera.

Link: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/08/turkish-backed-syrian-rebels-advance-manbij-160829154225197.html.