Turkey vows to widen offensive to eastern Syria, Iraq

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey’s president on Monday vowed to expand military operations across northern Syria and even into neighboring Iraq after his forces drove Syrian Kurdish fighters from the northern Syrian town of Afrin.President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the two-monthlong Afrin campaign was the “most important phase” of the military operation launched on Jan. 20, which is aimed at driving Syrian Kurdish forces out of areas along the border. Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish militiamen as terrorists because of their links to Kurdish insurgents fighting inside Turkey.Erdogan said Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces would now press eastward, toward the town of Manbij and areas east of the Euphrates River, including Ras al-Ayn and Ayn al-Arab, the Arabic name for the Kurdish town of Kobani. Those areas are controlled by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, and U.S. troops are stationed there.“We’ll continue this process until we completely abolish this corridor,” Erdogan said. Turkey first launched military operations in Syria in 2016, and Erdogan has repeatedly said it will not allow a “terror corridor” along its border.Erdogan said Turkish troops could also cross into Iraq to drive out Kurdish militants from the region of Sinjar, if the Iraqi government does not act against militants in the area. Turkey says the region is becoming a headquarters for outlawed Kurdish rebels who have been fighting an insurgency in Turkey’s southeast since 1984.“One night, we could suddenly enter Sinjar,” Erdogan said, speaking at a ceremony for judicial appointments in Ankara.He said his forces might also go as far as Qamishli, a Syrian town where the Syrian government controls the airport and a security zone.The Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Units, or YPG, withdrew from Afrin on Sunday after a Turkish thrust into the town center. They have vowed to continue the fight, using hit and run attacks against Turkish troops in Afrin.Turkey’s state-run news agency said 11 people – seven civilians and four Turkish-backed Syrian fighters – were killed in an explosion in a building in the town center as it was being cleared of booby traps. Anadolu News agency said the bomb was reportedly left by Syrian Kurdish fighters.On Monday, the European Union’s top diplomat criticized Turkey over its military offensive in Afrin, calling on Ankara to work to halt the fighting in Syria. Federica Mogherini told reporters in Brussels that international efforts in Syria should be aimed at “de-escalating the military activities and not escalating them.” In reference to the Afrin offensive, she said: “I am worried about this.”She urged Turkey, Russia and Iran- who have brokered “de-escalation zones” around Syria- to ensure the agreements are implemented.A senior Kurdish official, Aldar Khalil, called the Turkish offensive an “occupation” that endangers the rest of the region, saying “the whole of northern Syria is in danger.”Erdogan insisted Turkey had no intention of “occupying” Syria, saying it was merely clearing the border area of terrorists.Syrian Kurdish officials have said that more than 800 YPG fighters were killed in the 58 days of fighting for Afrin, and estimated that 500 civilians were killed. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at more than 280 civilians and 1,500 Kurdish fighters.Turkey says 46 of its soldiers were killed in the offensive, and that it took all measures to avoid civilian casualties.A British woman who had fought alongside the Kurds was killed on Thursday in a Turkish airstrike.Afrin residents and the Observatory reported widespread looting soon after Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters marched into the town center on Sunday. Images have emerged of torched stores, and of men in uniforms and others in civilian clothes walking out of homes with household goods. Others were seen driving away with tractors and agriculture supplies.A commander with the Turkey-backed Syrian forces blamed the looting on “thieves.” Moataz Raslan said a special unit for the protection of property has been formed to prevent further theft.Thousands of Afrin residents streamed out of the town before the Turkish troops entered. Lines of vehicles and civilians on foot headed toward Syrian government-controlled areas to the south or other Kurdish-controlled areas.Azad Mohamed, an Afrin resident who arrived Sunday in a region to the east after two days on the road, said looting was underway in villages near Afrin even before the Turkish forces entered the town. He blamed the Kurdish militiamen for failing to help people evacuate the town earlier with their belongings.“If they have not yet stolen my things, they will in an hour,” he said. “We knew they would only leave the walls.”Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writer Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.