ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish forces will withdraw from the Syrian border region of Afrin, leaving it to its “real owners”, once it has been cleared of “terrorists”, Turkey said on Monday.
Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies swept into the regional capital, also called Afrin, on Sunday, raising their flags in the town center and declaring full control after an eight-week campaign against the Kurdish YPG militia.
“We are not permanent there (in Afrin) and we are certainly not invaders. Our goal is to hand the region back to its real owners after clearing it of terrorists,” Bekir Bozdag, a deputy prime minister, told reporters.
The fight for Afrin, a once-stable pocket of northwest Syria, has opened a new front in the country’s multi-sided civil war and highlighted the ever-greater role of foreign powers such as Turkey. More than 150,000 people have fled Afrin in recent days, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said.
Bozdag said the capture of the town of Afrin as part of Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’ had significantly reduced threats to its borders.
It is Turkey’s second cross-border operation into Syria during that country’s seven-year civil war.
The first operation, dubbed “Euphrates Shield”, targeted what Ankara called a “terror corridor” made up of Islamic State and Kurdish fighters further east from Afrin along its southern frontier with Syria.
After the completion of the Euphrates Shield operation in early 2017, Turkey set up local systems of governance in the swathe of land captured, stretching from the area around Azaz – located to the northeast of Afrin – to the Euphrates River and protected by Turkish forces present there.
Bozdag said Turkey now aimed to form similar governance systems in the Afrin region, without elaborating.
Turkey’s campaign in Afrin has drawn criticism in the West, including the United States and France, which have provided arms and training to the YPG and fear that the incursion could weaken international action against Islamic State fighters in Syria.
Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the militant PKK group that has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey for decades. Turkey has been infuriated by the Western support given to the Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Bozdag said Turkey had collected “most” of the weapons given to Kurdish fighters by the United States, after the YPG left the arms behind as they fled the town.
(Reporting by Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan and Gareth Jones)