By PHILIP ISSA, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — France’s top diplomat and the U.S. defense secretary Tuesday urged Turkey to exercise restraint in its battle against a Syrian Kurdish militia as the Turkish military pressed its operations in north Syria for the fourth straight day.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said intense fighting between Turkish troops and a U.S.-allied Kurdish militia in recent days is a sign that new conflicts could erupt in the region as the Islamic State group is defeated.
He warned that without a political solution to the multi-sided Syrian civil war, the region could again explode with conflicts “just as dramatic” as the war on IS.
His statement mirrored comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who warned the fighting was distracting from the war on terror and disrupting humanitarian relief efforts.
“The violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria,” he said while traveling in Asia. “It distracts from the international efforts to ensure the defeat of ISIS.”
Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in north Syria is straining relations with its NATO allies. The U.S. military is a partner of the YPG and operates bases in Kurdish-controlled territory in north Syria.
Turkish police have arrested at least 55 people in a sweep against alleged supporters of the YPG inside Turkey, according to Anadolu Agency.
Also on Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced a second Turkish soldier was killed in Operation Olive Branch.
Turkey says the YPG — a group it considers a terrorist organization — is an extension of an outlawed Kurdish rebel group that it is fighting inside its own borders, and it has found common cause with Syrian opposition groups who view the YPG as a counter-revolutionary force in Syria’s intricate civil war.
Turkey says it aims to create a 30-kilometer (20-mile) deep “secure zone” in Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled enclave on its border.
As Turkey’s military and allied Syrian forces pressed their campaign, Turkey shelled a city in northeastern Syria, said a spokesman for the YPG.
Nureddine Mehmud said Turkey fired on Qamishli and other towns along the Syrian-Turkish border on Tuesday, calling it a diversion from the main campaign in Afrin, which lies along a separate part of the frontier. There were no reported casualties.
Mehmud said the YPG and allied militias had managed to prevent the Turkish forces from making “any real progress” in Afrin.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Monitoring group said at least 24 civilians, 24 Kurdish fighters and 25 Turkish-backed Syrian militiamen have been killed in the clashes in Afrin since Saturday. Most of the civilians were killed in Turkish airstrikes, which have targeted towns and cities in the enclave.
The fighting threatens to destabilize what was once a bastion of stability in a country convulsing with war. There are an estimated 800,000 civilians in Afrin, including many who arrived there after fleeing fighting from other parts of Syria.
The Observatory said the Syrian government had closed the roads out of Afrin to civilians seeking safety. Mehmud said the civilian population has so far not shown any intention to leave.
The war in Syria has drawn in militaries from around the world as a crackdown against anti-government protests in 2011 spiraled into a conflict with global dimensions. At least 400,000 people have been killed and half the country’s population has been displaced in the war.