Turkey on Sunday seized a strategic outpost from Kurdish militia in Syria, pressing ahead with a campaign that has strained relations with the United States.
After several days of poor visibility because of heavy rain and fog, Turkish warplanes and artillery took advantage of the clear skies and seized Mount Barsaya near the Kurdish town of Afrin in northwestern Syria, the military said in a statement.
The hill is significant because it overlooks the towns of Kilis and Azaz, either side of the Turkish-Syrian border.
Turkey launched operation “Olive Branch” on January 20 against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin, supporting Syrian opposition fighters with ground troops and air strikes.
While Turkey brands the YPG a “terror” group, the militia has received support from the US, its fighters spearheading the battle against the Islamic State group across swathes of Syria.
Despite souring relations with NATO ally Washington, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to expand the offensive against the YPG to Manbij, east of Afrin.
In a sign the Turkish campaign has rendered prospects for peace in Syria even fainter, authorities in the war-torn country’s Kurdish autonomous region said they will not attend peace talks in Russia.
“We said before that if the situation remained the same in Afrin we could not attend,” regional official Fawza al-Yussef said.
Rebel backer Turkey is one of the sponsors of the talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Monday and Tuesday, along with Damascus allies Russia and Iran.
Turkey’s air and artillery strikes on Sunday were even fiercer than the preceding days, said an AFP correspondent on the Syrian-Turkish border who saw towers of smoke rising into the sky.
Turkish channel NTV broadcast live footage Sunday showing rocket fire targeting Mount Barsaya.
Turkish troops and their Syrian opposition allies said last Monday that they had captured the hill, before losing it a few hours later.
US-Turkish relations soured
Turkish relations with the US have dipped over their stances on the YPG — which Ankara says is a “terrorist” offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The PKK, which has waged a war against the Turkish state for three decades, is proscribed as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.
US President Donald Trump earlier this week urged Erdogan to “de-escalate” his forces’ assault on Afrin as he expressed concern about “the destructive and false” anti-American rhetoric emanating from Turkey.
Adding fuel to the fire, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Saturday urged the US to “immediately withdraw” its personnel from Kurdish-held Manbij.
“We are going to cleanse Manbij” after Afrin, government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said Sunday, according to Anadolu.
Manbij was retaken from IS by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in 2016 as part of a push that would later recapture the city of Raqa from the jihadists.
Faced with the Turkish onslaught, the YPG’s political arm the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) appealed to the international community to pressure Ankara into halting its offensive.
Seven Turkish soldiers have died since “Olive Branch” was launched, Erdogan said, while around 40 others have been injured.
Sixty-nine pro-Turkish rebels have been killed, as well as 78 Kurdish fighters.
The fighting has also led to a heavy loss of civilian lives.
According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 44 civilians have been killed in the fighting, including 12 children, most of them in Turkish air strikes.
At Afrin’s main hospital on Sunday, a reporter working with AFP saw two boys crying in bloodied clothes, while outside an ambulance unloaded the bodies of a man and a child.
As well as human losses, on Sunday Syria’s antiquities department said that Turkish air strikes have damaged a 3,000-year-old temple in the country’s north.
“This attack reflects the hatred and barbarism of the Turkish regime against the Syrian identity and against the past, present and future of the Syrian people,” a statement on the government agency website said.
Ankara denies shelling any civilian areas.
Several nations, including Germany and France, as well as the European Union, have expressed concern over the Turkish offensive against a country where over 340,000 people have already been killed since war erupted in 2011.