Clashes subside in Syria between Turkish, Kurdish forces
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.