Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refuses to abandon a military campaign in the Kurdish-run province of Afrin, rejecting calls by Western allies that a United Nations Security Council resolution for a cease-fire across Syria applies to the Turkish incursion.
The Security Council voted unanimously on Feb. 24 for a 30-day cease-fire across Syria to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid amid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s weeklong assault on the rebel enclave of Ghouta that has killed almost 600 people, a quarter of them children. UN officials say Assad has so far failed to honor the truce.
Syria’s neighbor Turkey, which has backed rebel factions against Assad since the war broke out in 2011, welcomed the UN resolution. Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin tweeted, "The entire world should say in unison stop this massacre."
But Turkey insists the UN decision will not affect its month-old battle against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin. Newspapers on Thursday cited Erdogan as saying Turkey was fighting Kurdish “terrorists” in defense of its borders.
“You do not leave the dragon half-slain. One way or another, this task will be completed,” Erdogan told reporters aboard his plane on a visit to Africa. “We are not coveting anyone’s territory. We are fighting against terrorist elements that pose a threat to our national security. … We will not seek permission to act from anyone.”
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday, “I would encourage Turkey to go and read this resolution, see what the world and the international community is saying about this.”
Turkey fired back at Nauert, accusing her of making “totally baseless” statements that lack an understanding of the resolution’s intent in a deliberate attempt to spin it.
“We would recommend that the United States focus on stopping the regime’s attacks on innocent civilians instead of making statements that support terrorists,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said in an emailed statement.
On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said Washington calling on Turkey to halt hostilities against the YPG while continuing its fight against the Islamic State (IS) was a “double standard,” telling reporters, “We read the resolution, and we read it well. It would be of more use if [US officials] read it. It lists certain settlements, and Afrin is not among them.”
But the Security Council resolution is “applicable throughout all of Syria,” tweeted Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom on Monday. A nonpermanent member of the Security Council, Sweden co-sponsored the resolution with Kuwait.
Germany and France have also called on NATO partner Turkey to abide by the cease-fire. Erdogan denied a statement from Emmanuel Macron’s office that the French president had told him by phone the truce should be implemented in Afrin without delay.
Turkey began bombarding YPG-controlled Afrin on Jan. 20 to undo the militia’s territorial gains across northern Syria, fearing a Kurdish entity on its border could stoke separatism among its own, far larger Kurdish population.
Turkish artillery shelled and warplanes bombed villages and the countryside around Afrin, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Thursday. According to the Britain-based body, almost 200 civilians have been killed since Turkey began attacking Afrin, home to 172,000 people.
The fighting has also killed 270 YPG members, 44 Turkish soldiers and 241 rebel fighters aligned with Turkey, the observatory reports. Turkey puts the death toll at 33 soldiers and 2,083 YPG fighters and denies targeting civilians. Amnesty International said on Wednesday both the Turkish military and Kurdish forces have indiscriminately attacked towns, killing innocent people.
The YPG is the United States’ most effective partner fighting IS in Syria, but it is closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has fought a three-decade insurgency within Turkey that has killed 40,000 people. Washington deems it a terrorist group, as does Turkey, but has sought to differentiate it from the YPG, which makes up the bulk of the US-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
US cooperation with the YPG has plunged relations between the longtime allies to new lows, with Erdogan threatening to expand the Afrin operation to areas in Syria where US soldiers are present. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met Erdogan in Ankara last month in a bid to repair ties.
Turkey’s incursion in Afrin endangers the US-led coalition’s ground offensive against IS in Syria, effectively halting it as Kurdish members of the SDF rush to Afrin to help their brethren, CNN reported.
Meanwhile, Assad has largely ignored the UN resolution, and his backers in Moscow have instead called for daily local cease-fires to allow aid in and civilians to leave. But the UN’s humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said on Wednesday there was no cease-fire and no humanitarian aid has been permitted to reach the 400,000 people in Ghouta, on the fringes of Damascus.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Erdogan had helped negotiate an evacuation of a large group of civilians from Ghouta, but Kalin threw cold water on the claim, saying an evacuation of 700 people had been decided with Russia a month ago but that the group was never brought to Turkey for treatment as was discussed.