As the Turkish military and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are closing in on the strategic Syrian town of Tel Rifaat, local sources claimed on March 27 that Turkish and FSA forces have taken control of the town.
Tel Rifaat is some 20 kilometers southeast of Afrin and hosts the Minnag airport.
Vowing to continue operations in Syria “until the terrorist threat is eliminated,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on March 25 that Turkish-backed forces, including the FSA, would take control of Tel Rifaat and then continue operations into Manbij.
Manbij, a northern Syrian town, is particularly important as it is still under the control of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) alongside U.S. troops. Turkey has long been urging the U.S. to make the YPG pull back from Manbij to the east of the Euphrates River amid threats that it will not hesitate to launch an attack on YPG positions even if American troops are present.
The U.S., however, has suggested that it has no intention to leave Manbij.
“U.S. forces are located in Manbij. We have made it very clear with the Turkish government that we will continue to operate there,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at a press conference on March 22.
Turkey launched “Operation Olive Branch” on Jan. 20 to clear the YPG from Afrin.
Turkey considers the YPG as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
On March 18, the Turkish armed forces and the FSA declared full control over the city.
3,755 militants “neutralized”
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said on March 26 that a total of 3,755 militants had been “neutralized” since the start of “Operation Olive Branch.”
Turkish officials generally use the term “neutralize” to indicate that the targets were either killed or captured.
Some 49 soldiers were killed and 228 wounded during the Afrin operation, Bozdağ also said.
According to Bozdağ, 282 villages, 50 strategic points and 332 locations were taken under control by Turkish troops and the FSA.
Stressing that utmost care was being given regarding civilians during the operation, Bozdağ noted that mine and explosive searches continue to provide security for the civilians in the region.
On a related note, the Turkish General Staff said on March 27 that two Turkish soldiers were killed on March 26 in Afrin when an improvised explosive device went off during a sweep and clear mission.
Meanwhile, a bomb planted by YPG militants exploded inside a house in Afrin’s Ashrafieh neighborhood on the same day, killing seven members of a family.
Stating that Turkey was supporting nearly 40,000 civilians in 106 locations in the Afrin region, Bozdağ said Turkish organizations such as the Turkish Red Crescent, the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) and Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs’ (Diyanet) foundation continued to provide humanitarian aid.