Civilians pay price as Turkey battles Syrian Kurds
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Rockets fired from northern Syria into a Turkish border town killed a teenage girl and wounded another person on Wednesday, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported, in the latest fallout from Ankara’s intensifying offensive on a Syrian Kurdish-controlled enclave.
Doctors inside the northwestern enclave of Afrin meanwhile warned of a rapidly worsening humanitarian situation, adding that medical supplies at the city’s main hospital, which has received dozens of patients in the past week, were running low.
Activists say more than 65 civilians have died in Afrin since Turkey launched its aerial and ground campaign on Jan. 20 to drive out a Syrian Kurdish militia. Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, an extension of the outlawed Kurdish rebels fighting an insurgency inside Turkey.
The militia has hit back with occasional rockets across the border.
Turkey’s Anadolu Agency said Syrian Kurdish fighters in Afrin fired two rockets Wednesday, hitting a house and a garden wall in the Turkish town of Reyhanli. Two people were hospitalized after the attack and one, 17-year-old Fatma Avlar, died from her wounds, the agency said. The attacks inside Turkey have so far killed four people, including Avlar. Two of the victims were Syrian refugees.
The Kurdish militia, meanwhile, accused Turkey of firing Katyusha rockets into Afrin, and reported that at least 12 people were wounded from the shelling.
“We appeal to the United Nations to stop this Turkish aggression,” Khalil Sabri, head of the Afrin hospital, said at a press conference aired on Kurdish and some Arab channels. “The medical supplies we have are about to run out,” he said.
Doctors at Afrin hospital issued appeals to halt the shelling, saying they were running dangerously low on supplies.
The Turkish offensive has strained relations between Ankara and Washington, which has partnered with the Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State group.
U.S. troops have no presence in Afrin, but Turkey has threatened to expand the offensive to Manbij, in eastern Syria, where U.S. troops carry out regular patrols as part of the fight against IS.
On Wednesday, the top American commander for the Middle East said the U.S. military is doing “everything we absolutely can” to avoid a confrontation with Turkey in Syria.
Gen. Joseph Votel, of U.S. Central Command, told reporters there is a “robust” coordination mechanism to avoid such friction.
NATO ally Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency it has battled for decades. The Syrian Kurdish force is a key ally of the U.S.-led coalition and has driven IS from large parts of northern and eastern Syria.
Coalition officials have warned that the offensive could destabilize recent gains against IS along the Iraq-Syria border in the Euphrates River Valley.
The top U.S. general in Iraq said Tuesday, after a visit to a coalition outpost near the Iraqi border town of Qaim, that he is “very much concerned” the fight in Afrin could ease pressure on pockets of IS fighters in other parts of Syria.
“I don’t want our partner to be distracted,” said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, referring to the Syrian Kurdish forces. “It’s a continual fight (against IS) certainly on the Syrian side.”
Iraqi forces declared victory over IS in December, but since the Afrin offensive began, Iraq’s border guard has reported increased IS activity and attacks along the border with Syria.
If the Syrian Kurdish forces get deeply entangled in the fighting in Afrin, that could force them to shift fighters from the border area, said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Brandon Payne, who is stationed in western Iraq, not far from the Syrian border.
Such a scenario “essentially takes the focus off ISIS and gives ISIS manoeuvre space. We don’t want to do that,” he added, using an alternative acronym for IS.
On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron warned Turkey against a full-scale invasion of Afrin and appealed on his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to respect Syria’s sovereignty.
In an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro, Macron said that Turkey must coordinate with allies, and that its operation inside Syria must be limited to fighting terror. Macron said he would talk to Erdogan in the coming days.
“If it turned out that this operation had to take another turn than an action to fight against a potential terror threat at the Turkish border, and that it was an invasion operation, at that moment, this operation would pose a real problem for us,” Macron said.
Turkey swiftly responded to Macron’s remarks, with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim saying the French president has a “flawed understanding” of Turkey’s cross-border offensive.
“The whole world knows and should know that Turkey does not operate with the mentality of an invader,” Yildirim said.
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Susannah George at al-Asad Air Base, Iraq, and Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan contributed to this report.