Turkish forces stepped up their bombardment around a town in northeast Syria on Saturday, the fourth day of an offensive against a Kurdish militia, after U.S. troops in the region came under artillery fire from Turkish positions.
The United States has ramped up its efforts to persuade Ankara to halt the incursion against the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, saying Ankara was causing “great harm” to ties and could face sanctions.
Turkey opened its offensive after U.S. President Donald Trump spoke by phone on Sunday with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan and withdrew U.S. troops who had been fighting alongside Kurdish forces.
On Friday evening, Erdogan dismissed mounting international criticism of the operation and said Turkey “will not stop it, no matter what anyone says”.
Monitor: 74 Kurdish-led fighters killed in Turkish offensive
The death toll among Syrian Kurdish-led fighters battling a Turkish offensive has risen to 74, most of whom have been killed in the Tel Abyad area, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday.
Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman also said 49 fighters with Turkish backed Syrian rebel groups had been killed since the assault began on Wednesday.
The death toll among civilians in Syria had climbed to 20 after two people died in the city of Qamishli, he said. Most of the civilian deaths were also in Tel Abyad, a border town that is one of the focal points of the operation.
On the frontlines, thick plumes of smoke rose around Syria’s Ras al Ain, one of two border towns targeted in the offensive, as Turkish artillery targeted the area on Saturday, said a Reuters reporter across the frontier in the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar.
Intense gunfire also resounded from within the town of Ras al Ain itself, while warplanes could be heard flying overhead, he said.
It was quieter at Tel Abyad, the operation’s other main target some 120 km (75 miles) to the west, with only occasional shell fire heard in the area, another Reuters reporter said.
Earlier, the Pentagon said none of its soldiers were wounded in the Turkish artillery fire near Syria’s Kobani, some 60 km (37 miles) west of the main area of conflict.
Turkey’s Defence Ministry said its forces did not open fire at the U.S. base and took all precautions to prevent any harm to it while it was responding to fire from a nearby area by the Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara regards as a terrorist group.
A war monitor gave a death toll of more than 100 from the first days of the assault. The United Nations said 100,000 people had fled their homes.
On Saturday morning, Turkey’s Defence Ministry said that 415 YPG militants had been “neutralised” since the operation began, a term that commonly means killed.
Iran offers to mediate between Syrian Kurds, Turkey
Iran offered on Saturday to engage Syrian Kurds, Syria’s government and Turkey in talks to establish security along the Turkish-Syrian border following Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria to fight Kurdish forces.
In making the mediation offer, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif referred to a 21-year-old security accord that required Damascus to stop harbouring Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants waged an insurgency against the Turkish state. Turkey has said that pact was never implemented.
“The Adana Agreement between Turkey and Syria – still valid – can be the better path to achiev(ing) security,” Zarif said. “Iran can help bring together the Syrian Kurds, the Syrian Govt and Turkey so that the Syrian Army together with Turkey can guard the border,” he said in a tweet which carried part of an interview he did with Turkish public broadcaster TRT World.
Iran’s call came on the fourth day of Turkey’s offensive against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara regards as a terrorist group with links to the PKK.
The United States has ramped up its efforts to persuade Ankara to halt the incursion, saying Ankara was causing “great harm” to ties and could face sanctions.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday the 1998 accord could only be implemented if there was a political settlement to Syria’s eight-year-old war. He also said implementing the Adana pact would require the Syrian government to be in control of northeastern Syria – which it is not.
Iran, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has regularly urged Turkey to respect Syria’s territorial integrity and avoid military action in northeastern Syria.
Damascus has said it is committed to the Adana accord.
Turkey’s Syria offensive “invasion” of Arab land – Arab League secretary general
Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Saturday called Turkey’s military operation in northeast Syria an “invasion of an Arab state’s land and an aggression on its sovereignty”.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Alhakim, president of the current Arab League session, also condemned Turkey’s offensive into Syria during an emergency meeting for the body, called by Egypt. He called on the League to reinstate Syria’s membership in the body.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with the Kurdish YPG as its main fighting element, now holds most of the territory that once made up Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria, and has been keeping thousands of fighters from the jihadist group in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.
The Kurdish militia say the Turkish assault could allow the jihadist group to re-emerge as some of its followers were escaping from prisons.
In its first big attack since the assault began on Tuesday, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a deadly car bomb in Qamishli, the largest city in the Kurdish-held area, even as the city came under Turkish shelling.
Five Islamic State fighters fled a jail there, and foreign women from the group being held in a camp torched tents and attacked guards with sticks and stones, the SDF said.
U.S. lawmakers introduced more legislation on Friday seeking stiff sanctions on Turkey over the offensive, underscoring unhappiness from both Democrats and President Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress over his Syria policy.
U.S. military officials denied lawmakers’ accusations that the Trump administration had abandoned U.S. allies to a Turkish military onslaught. Ankara says it aims to defeat the YPG, which it sees as an enemy for its links to militants who have fought a decades-old insurgency in Turkey.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Trump had authorized the drafting of “very significant” new sanctions against Turkey, a NATO ally. Washington was not activating the curbs now but would do so if necessary, Mnuchin said.
Turkey aims to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria, where it can resettle many of the 3.6 million refugees it has been hosting. Erdogan threatened to send refugees to Europe if the European Union did not back his assault, prompting a furious response from the EU.