ANKARA/ISTANBUL, Feb 13, (Agencies): A decision by the United States to continue to fund the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia will affect Turkey’s future moves, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday, ahead of a visit this week by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. US officials have said that Tillerson expects to have difficult conversations when he visits Turkey on Thursday and Friday, given that the NATO allies have starkly diverging interests in Syria.
Turkey has been enraged by US support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara sees as a terrorist organisation and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Washington has backed the YPG in the fight against Islamic State in Syria. “Our ally’s decision to give financial support to the YPG… will surely affect the decisions we will take,” Erdogan said in a speech to members of his ruling AK Party in parliament. His comments followed the release of the US Department of Defence’s 2019 budget, which includes requests for funds to train and equip local forces in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.
The Pentagon requested $300 million for Syrian “train and equip activities” and $250 million for border security requirements, according to a copy of the budget. While it did not specify how much of this, if any, was earmarked for YPG-led forces, Turkish media interpreted that to mean that the Pentagon had allocated $550 million to the YPG in 2019. “It will be better for them not to stand with the terrorists they support today. I am calling on the people of the United States, this money is coming out of the budget of the United States, it is coming out of people’s pockets.”
Turkey last month launched an incursion into Syria, which it calls “Operation Olive Branch” to sweep the YPG from its southern border. It has also threatened to press on to the Syrian town of Manbij, under the control of a YPGled force, and has warned American troops stationed there not to get in the way.
Washington says it has no plans to withdraw its soldiers from Manbij and two US commanders visited the town last week to reinforce that message. “It is very clear that those who say ‘we will respond aggressively if you hit us’ have never experienced an Ottoman slap,” Erdogan said in parliament. That was an apparent reference to comments made by US Lieutenant General Paul Funk during a visit to Manbij. Turkish-led bombardment left at least one person dead and several others wounded near the main hospital in the Syrian town of Afrin on Tuesday, a monitor and military force said.
The border areas in Syria’s northwest region of Afrin have been battered by air strikes, artillery and rocket fire since Ankara and allied Syrian rebels began their assault on the district three weeks ago. Strikes on the central town of Afrin are rarer, but a barrage of artillery and rockets struck it on Tuesday morning, AFP’s correspondents there said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, said it left at least one person dead.
“At least one person was killed and four others wounded when Turkish forces and allied factions fired artillery and rockets on Afrin city, including near the entrance of the hospital,” said the Observatory. The broader Afrin region is held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has received US backing but is considered by Ankara to be a “terror group”. YPG spokesman Birusk Hasakeh confirmed to AFP that one person had been killed in bombardment near the hospital. The Afrin hospital is the main medical facility in the area and has been overwhelmed by civilians seeking treatment there. Turkey and allied Syrian factions launched their offensive on January 20, saying they aimed to clear the YPG from the border area and other towns further east.
Ankara has repeatedly insisted it is taking all the necessary precautions to avoid harming civilians and says there have been no civilian casualties to date. The Observatory, however, has said more than 70 civilians have been killed in the operation so far. Russian fighters were among those killed when US-led coalition forces clashed with pro-government forces in Syria this month, former associates of the dead said on Monday. A US official has said more than 100 fighters aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad died when coalition and local coalition-backed forces thwarted a large attack overnight on Feb. 7. Russia’s Defence Ministry, which supports Assad’s forces in the Syrian civil war, said at the time that progovernment militias involved in the incident had been carrying out reconnaissance and no Russian servicemen had been in the area. But at least two Russian men fighting informally with pro-government forces were killed in the incident in Deir Ezzor province, their associates told Reuters on Monday.
One of the dead was named as Vladimir Loginov, a Cossack from Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave. Maxim Buga, a leader of the Cossack community there, said Loginov had been killed around Feb. 7 along with “dozens” of other Russian fighters. The other man killed was named as Kirill Ananiev, described as a radical Russian nationalist. Alexander Averin, a spokesman for the nationalist party he was linked to, told Reuters Ananiev had been killed in shelling in the same fighting on Feb 7. Reuters was unable to independently confirm either man’s death.
Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteran liberal politician who is running for president in elections next month, called on President Vladimir Putin to disclose how many Russians had been killed in Syria and in what circumstances. Syria’s Kurds said Monday they have “no problem” if the regime in Damascus intervenes on their side to help push back an assault by Turkey in the Afrin region.
Ankara has been waging an offensive against Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in the frontier region since Jan 20. While the United States has given armed support to the YPG against the Islamic State group in Syria, Turkey says the militia is a “terrorist” offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “We don’t have a problem with the entry of the Syrian army to defend Afrin and its border in the face of the Turkish occupation,” YPG commander Sipan Hamo said at a press conference. Long oppressed by Damascus, the Kurds have taken advantage of the conflict that began in 2011 to secure de facto autonomy over Syria’s northern regions. Kurdish authorities called in late January for the regime to intervene by sending its forces on the border with Turkey.