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A Turkish soldier on an armoured personnel carrier waves as they drive from the border back to their base in Karkamis on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern Gaziantep province, Turkey, August 27, 2016. (UMIT BEKTAS/Reuters)
A Turkish soldier on an armoured personnel carrier waves as they drive from the border back to their base in Karkamis on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern Gaziantep province, Turkey, August 27, 2016. (UMIT BEKTAS/Reuters)

Turkish-backed rebels expel Kurdish-led forces from northern Syrian towns Add to ...

Rebels backed by Turkey made major gains Sunday in northern Syria, expelling Kurdish-led forces from towns and villages as part of a determined campaign by Ankara to push the militants east of the Euphrates River.

At least 35 civilians were killed, according to activists. The dramatic escalation of Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war last week aimed to help the Syrian rebels drive the Islamic State group out of the border town of Jarablus. But it also is aimed at U.S.-allied Kurdish forces that have gained control in recent months of most of the territory along the Turkey-Syria border.

The fighting pits Turkey, a NATO ally, against a U.S.-backed proxy that is the most effective ground force battling IS militants in Syria in the five-year-old civil war. It leaves Washington in the tough spot of having to choose between two of its allied forces, and is likely to divert resources from the fight against IS.

A Turkish soldier was killed by a Kurdish rocket attack late Saturday, the first such fatality in Turkey’s ground offensive dubbed Euphrates Shield that began last Wednesday.

Speaking at a rally in the border town of Gaziantep, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his military is committed to fighting terrorism in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey, he said, also is determined to “uproot” the Syrian Kurdish group, calling it a terrorist organization. But he didn’t specify a goal for the fight against the Kurdish forces.

Turkey is part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the militants of the Islamic State group, but the air strikes that began Saturday marked the first time it has targeted Kurdish-led forces in Syria.

“We will support all work to clean Syria and Iraq of Daesh,” Mr. Erdogan told the rally, using an Arabic acronym for the IS group. “That’s why we are in Jarablus, that’s why we are in Bashiqa [in Iraq]. If necessary, we will not shy away from taking responsibility in the same way in other areas.”

Turkey has troops stationed in Bashiqa in northern Iraq, and it was not clear if his reference to Jarablus means he intends to base his troops there.

Mr. Erdogan then turned his focus to the main Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, known as the PYD.

“We are as determined about the PYD, the separatist terror organization’s Syrian wing,” he said. Ankara views the PYD and the militia affiliated with it, which forms the backbone of the U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces, or SDF, as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency that is raging in southeastern Turkey.

“We will continue until we uproot this terror organization,” Mr. Erdogan told the rally.

A spokesman for a Syrian rebel group said the Turkish-backed offensive will continue south of Jarablus to clear IS and Kurdish forces from northeastern Aleppo. Turkish leaders have vowed to drive both IS and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, away from the border.

Turkey’s military said Sunday its warplanes killed 25 Kurdish “terrorists” and destroyed five buildings used by the fighters in response to attacks on advancing Turkish-backed rebels in the Jarablus area. Various factions of the Turkey-backed Syrian rebels said they had seized several villages and towns from Kurdish-led forces south of Jarablus, including Amarneh, where fighting was fiercest in recent days.

The Kurdish-led forces “must pull back to the east of the Euphrates. We will fight all terrorist groups, including [the Kurdish-led fighters] … in all of northeast Aleppo,” said Captain Abdel-Salam Abdel-Razzak, a spokesman for the Nour el-Din al-Zinki group.

Turkish-backed fighters will move south of Jarablus, toward Manbij and beyond, he said.

Earlier this month, the Kurdish-led SDF crossed the Euphrates and drove IS militants out of Manbij, a key supply hub south of Jarablus, after a 10-week campaign. Both Turkey and the United States have ordered the YPG militia to withdraw to the east bank of the river. YPG leaders say they have, but their units advise the Syrian Democratic Forces, and it is not clear if any remain west of the Euphrates.

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