Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Wednesday that he hopes the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin would be captured “by this evening.”
“The route terrorists use to enter and exit eastern Afrin will be closed soon,” Erdoğan told a gathering of village and neighborhood heads at the presidential complex in the capital Ankara. “We will clear Afrin of terrorists, clear Manbij, and east of the Euphrates River to our border with northern Iraq, we will rid the terrorist from all of them the same way,” said Erdoğan.
He also said that the “terrorists” lack the ability to construct the tunnels in the mountains that they use. “They have partners, too. They did this all together as coalition powers. The terrorists aren’t that smart, don’t be fooled,” he added.
“Today, as the operation entered its 54th day, almost 3,500 terrorists have been neutralized and about 1,300 square kilometers of land cleared of terrorists,” he said. The Turkish General Staff has also said in a statement on Wednesday morning that a total of 3,444 militants have been “neutralized” since the start of Operation Olive Branch in Afrin region. Turkish authorities often use the word “neutralized” in their statements to imply the militants in question either surrendered or were killed or captured.
Meanwhile, a senior official of the Syrian Kurdish-led forces on Tuesday accused Turkish government of settling Arab and Turkmen families in the villages captured in the Turkish army’s assault in the Kurdish region of Afrin.
Kurdistan24 has reported that Redur Xelil, head of foreign relations for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the Kurdish YPG militants are the leading component, said in an online statement that Turkey was conducting a policy of intentional demographic change in Afrin.
“The Turkish government is settling Turkmen and Arab families in the villages of Afrin that it occupied after forcing out its people and is distributing the belongings of the people of Afrin to the new settlers,” he said.
Kurdistan24 stated that if the claims are true, the actions would amount to ethnic cleansing. Various forms of forcible transfer of populations, especially of ethnic or religious groups, are considered war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
The report said footage released by Turkish-backed Syrian militiamen shows their members saying they are taking the Kurdish villages and houses for their own fighters and families. However, a senior Turkish official said the accusation was “absolutely false”, Reuters reported.
The senior Turkish official said, “The claim that Arabs and Turkmen are being placed in Afrin is absolutely false … A transfer of population to that region to change the demographic structure is out of the question.”
Turkey launched its offensive against the YPG on Jan. 20, claiming that Kurdish militias, which it argues are an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), represent a “terrorist” threat to its southern borders. According to human rights organizations, over 200 civilians have been killed as a result of the ongoing offensive with scores more injured.
A Turkish military operation on Tuesday against the PKK in Diyarbakır led to the killing of three soldiers and wounding of four others. A press release on the website of the Diyarbakır governor office’s website said a roadside explosive device caused the casualties, as the army was continuing the operation in Diyarbakir’s northern Dicle district. Turkish authorities have recently ordered on and off curfews in rural areas to fight the PKK in several provinces.
Meanwhile, another Turkish soldier was killed during Turkish military’s ongoing operation in Afrin. The official number of troops killed in Afrin thus rose to 43, with over 200 others wounded in the offensive on the US-armed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a coalition ally in the fight against the ISIL in Syria.