Turkey vows to widen offensive to eastern Syria, Iraq
BEIRUT — Turkey’s president on Monday vowed to expand military operations across northern Syria and even into neighboring Iraq after his forces drove Syrian Kurdish fighters from the northern Syrian town of Afrin.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the two-monthlong Afrin campaign was the ‘‘most important phase’’ of the military operation launched on Jan. 20, which is aimed at driving Syrian Kurdish forces out of areas along the border.
Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish militiamen as terrorists because of their links to Kurdish insurgents fighting inside Turkey.
Erdogan said Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces would now press eastward, toward the town of Manbij and areas east of the Euphrates River, including Ras al-Ayn and Ayn al-Arab, the Arabic name for the Kurdish town of Kobani.
Those areas are controlled by US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, and US troops are stationed there.
‘‘We’ll continue this process until we completely abolish this corridor,’’ Erdogan said. Turkey first launched military operations in Syria in 2016, and Erdogan has repeatedly said it will not allow a ‘‘terror corridor’’ along its border.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry, in messages sent to the UN Security Council and secretary general on Monday, called on Turkey to withdraw its forces immediately from Syrian territories.
In a separate development, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s office released videos showing the president driving himself to visit his forces at the battle for eastern Ghouta, just outside the capital, Damascus. Other drivers on the road Sunday gave no indication of knowing who was behind the wheel of the Honda sedan.
Assad’s forces battling for control of eastern Ghouta appear close to clinching one of their most significant victories against rebels in seven years of civil war.
In the north, Turkish troops could cross into Iraq to drive out Kurdish militants from the region of Sinjar, if the Iraqi government does not act against militants in the area, Erdogan said.
Turkey contends the region is becoming a headquarters for outlawed Kurdish rebels who have been fighting an insurgency in Turkey’s southeast since 1984.
‘‘One night, we could suddenly enter Sinjar,’’ Erdogan said, speaking at a ceremony for judicial appointments in Ankara.
He said his forces might also go as far as Qamishli, a Syrian town where the Syrian government controls the airport and a security zone.
The Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Units, or YPG, withdrew from Afrin on Sunday after a Turkish thrust into the town center. They have vowed to continue the fight, using guerrilla attacks against Turkish troops in Afrin.
Turkey’s state-run news agency said 11 people — seven civilians and four Turkish-backed Syrian fighters — were killed in an explosion in a building in the town center as it was being cleared of booby traps. Anadolu News agency said the bomb was reportedly left by Syrian Kurdish fighters.
On Monday, the European Union’s top diplomat criticized Turkey over its military offensive, calling on Ankara to work to halt the fighting in Syria.
Federica Mogherini said in Brussels that international efforts in Syria should be aimed at ‘‘de-escalating the military activities and not escalating them.’’ In reference to the Afrin offensive, she said: ‘‘I am worried about this.’’