The Turkish president has vowed to expand military operations across northern Syria and even into neighbouring Iraq after his forces drove Syrian Kurdish fighters from the northern city of Afrin.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the two-month Afrin campaign was the “most important phase” of the military operation launched on January 20, which is aimed at driving Syrian Kurdish forces out of areas along the Turkish border.
Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish militiamen as terrorists because of their links to Kurdish insurgents fighting inside Turkey.
Mr 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 US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, and US troops are stationed there.
Mr Erdogan has repeatedly said it will not allow a “terror corridor” along its border.
He 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 claims the region is becoming a headquarters for outlawed Kurdish rebels who have been fighting an insurgency in Turkey’s south-east since 1984.
“One night, we could suddenly enter Sinjar,” Mr 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.
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 centre as it was being cleared of booby traps. Anadolu News agency said the bomb was reportedly left by Syrian Kurdish fighters.
The European Union’s top diplomat has criticised Turkey, 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”.
Mr Erdogan insists Turkey has no intention of “occupying” Syria, saying it is merely clearing the border area of terrorists.
Syrian Kurdish officials 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 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 possible measures to avoid civilian casualties.