Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on a diplomatic offensive to convince Western leaders and new ally Russia that Ankara’s military operation against the Kurds in northern Syria is aimed at purging “terror elements” and not designed to permanently occupy Syrian territory.
Turkey’s state-run media outlet Anadolu Agency reported that Erdogan told French President Emmanuel Macron during a February 3 telephone call that Turkey had “no designs on the territory of another country.”
The Turkish military suffered its highest number of casualties in a single day on February 3-4, when 10 soldiers were killed in a 24-hour period. The ongoing offensive codenamed “Operation Olive Branch” was launched on January 20 against members of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in Syria’s Kurdish-run Afrin region. The Turks consider the secular YPG as a terrorist organisation that needs to be dealt with in the same manner as Islamic militants.
Erdogan has publicly stated his support for destroying Kurdish groups who hope to carve out an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq and Syria.
In another twist of the multi-sided civil war, Ankara is supported by the anti-regime Free Syrian Army (FSA), which seeks to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
A Turkish government official denied a report by Human Rights Watch on February 3 that Turkish border guards are indiscriminately shooting at and summarily forcing back asylum seekers attempting to cross into Turkey.
Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, told reporters that Turkish soldiers were there to protect the local people and that Ankara has had an “open-door policy” since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.
The Turks accuse the YPG of having links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkish for more than 30 years. The PKK is regarded as a terror group by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.
Turkey’s NATO allies, however, have worked closely with and armed YPG fighters in their battle against ISIS.
Macron said in a newspaper interview last week that France would have a “real problem” with the Turkish campaign if it turned out to be an “invasion operation.”
After the French leader’s remarks, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that France had no right “to give us lessons” on a cross-border offensive, citing France’s colonial history.
The Kurdish news portal Rudaw quoted Turkish military sources as saying five of the soldiers killed on February 3 were killed in an attack on a Turkish tank. Two others were killed earlier in the day in separate clashes.
If confirmed, the deaths would bring the total number of Turkish military dead to 14, since the offensive in Afrin began.