Turkey set to expand Syria offensive to Kurdish-held Manbij

Turkish army tanks head for Afrin an enclave in northern Syria controlled by US-allied Kurdish fighters. AP

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has rejected a Turkish army statement that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was present in the Afrin region of north-western Syria, where Ankara launched an offensive four days ago, raising global concern.

The president "urged Turkey to de-escalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties", a White House statement said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to continue military action to rid Syria of US-allied Kurdish militias, despite a warning from Washington for Turkey not to risk a clash with its forces in the region.

The remarks, from the spokesman for President Tayyip Erdogan's government, underscore the growing bilateral tensions six days after Turkey launched its air and ground operation, "Olive Branch," in Syria's northwestern Afrin region.

Elizabeth Teoman, a research assistant on Turkey at the Institute for the Study of War, said an escalation in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict threatens US troops in both Syria and Turkey, where the Pentagon maintains two military bases.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during a meeting in Paris this week, had raised the possibility of the creation of a 30-kilometer-deep (20-mile) "safe zone" in Syria running along Turkey's border.

The letter indicated that there are more than 200 Christian families living in Afrin, which is an isolated part of the Syrian federation bordering areas controlled by Islamist rebels and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The US and Russian Federation reached an agreement in 2013 to remove all chemical weapons from Syria, but there have been several reported chemical attacks since then, including one a year ago that led President Donald Trump to order a retaliatory missile attack on a Syrian air base.

The Kurds played a large part in driving out Islamic State from most of northeastern Syria.

Kurdish demonstrators protest against the Turkish military operation in northern Syria outside the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva on January 24.

"The Western community noticed Russia's game plan in Syria - with it giving a green light to launch the Afrin offensive - because Moscow's main goal is to shift Turkey away from North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, to sow discord between Turkey and the West, disintegrate the alliance, and establish a more asymmetrical relationship pattern".

Turkey regards the YPG militias (People's Protection Units), which are fighting Daesh in Syria, as a terrorist group since Ankara suspects them of ties with the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which has been waging an armed conflict in Turkey seeking autonomy and equal rights for the Kurds in the country.

Those tensions boiled over after the United States announced earlier this month that it would build a 30,000-strong border force, including the YPG, that would patrol Syria's frontiers - a situation Turkey said constituted an intolerable national security threat.

Aliriza said if Turkey follows through with plans to move its military into Manbij it risks "major escalation" with the United States.

They said the USA statement issued on Wednesday night did not correctly reflect the contents of the conversation between Erdogan and Trump.

Turkey sees the quest by the Kurds - who are spread out in Turkey, Syria and Iraq - to establish an independent homeland as an existential threat to its territorial integrity and has long warned that it will not tolerate control of much of its border with Syria by the YPG.

Turkish warplanes struck the northern borders of Afrin, in tandem with heavy artillery shelling, and one civilian was killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

The U.N. envoy for Syria said on Wednesday that he was "optimistic" about this round of talks.

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