Following the successful operation against the Daesh terror group in Al-Bab, the next target for the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) will be the northern Syrian city of Manbij, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday.
“Manbij is not a place for the PYD or YPG … it belongs to Arabs,” Erdogan told reporters at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul before departing for an economic summit in Pakistan.
Manbij, an Arab-populated city on the western bank of the Euphrates River, is currently controlled by the terror group PYD, an offshoot of the PKK which Ankara has been fighting for several decades.
Turkey has insisted PYD elements must leave Manbij and withdraw east of the Euphrates.
“First of all they should evacuate the place so that local residents can come there,” Erdogan urged.
Ankara has repeatedly said one terror group should not be used against another and urged the U.S.-led coalition to stop using the YPG to eliminate Daesh terrorists in the region.
The Turkish government said it would not participate in any formation where the PYD/YPG is included.
Erdogan said FSA forces could lead the Raqqa operation, adding they have completed successful operations in Jarabulus, Al-Rai, Dabiq and Al-Bab.
Turkish-backed forces have killed more than 3,000 Daesh terrorists -- as well as some PYD elements -- in northern Syria under Operation Euphrates Shield, according to the Turkish president.
Operation Euphrates Shield began in late August to improve security, support coalition forces, and eliminate the terror threat along the Turkish border using Free Syrian Army fighters backed by Turkish artillery and jets.
Steps to Raqqa, Manbij
On Feb. 24, the Turkish military said the Al-Bab operation had been completed and the strategic city cleared of Daesh elements.
Erdogan added that the completion of the Al-Bab operation did not mean Operation Euphrates Shield was over and said there were “some steps to be taken” to free Raqqa and Manbij.
He also referred to making an agreement with “coalition forces, Russia and America”.
Erdogan said Ankara was dealing with Russia, a close neighbor, and the U.S., a
“The Turkish-led forces should be used in the Raqqa operation,” Erdogan said and added, “Because our fight is against Daesh. If our allies are sensitive in the fight against Daesh, we tell them: ‘We can move together with you’”.
“Just let Raqqa be freed of Daesh. And let the city be handed over to its real [Arab] owners,” he added.
Turkey and the new U.S. administration of President Donald Trump
Some top-level officials from the U.S. visited Ankara this month to discuss a strategy. A detailed proposal is expected to be submitted to Trump this week.
“As Turkey, we don’t have any intention or plan to stay there. We will just attempt to clear threats from there. We don’t want a region around us from where we face threats,” Erdogan said.
“The Syrian people are our friends. They are our brothers. They are not threats against us,” he added.
Erdogan noted that Turkey intended to continue the process of Operation Euphrates Shield in “unity” with international forces.
“We are not in a situation to watch all happenings from distance,” Erdogan said, adding that Turkey had paid a huge cost for observing from afar in the past.
He recalled Turkish government policy to be in the field as well as at the negotiation table on the Syria issue.
Erdogan also stressed Turkey's idea of training and equipping moderate opposition fighters and creating a safe zone inside Syria for displaced people.