BEIRUT (AP) — French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday criticized Turkey’s “contradictory” military intervention in Syria and warned Russia not to become a “protagonist” in the war, a day after a U.S. official warned that clashes between Turkish troops and Kurdish forces would detract from the fight against the Islamic State group.
The mounting criticism comes as a spokesman for the Kurdish-led forces in Syria said IS militants carried out a two-pronged attack on villages south and west of the former militant stronghold of Manbij, taking advantage of clashes between his forces and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels.
The Kurdish-led forces seized Manbij from IS earlier this month after a 10-week campaign.
Turkish troops entered Syria last week and together with allied Syrian rebels have pushed to clear both IS militants and Kurdish-led forces from the border area around the Syrian town of Jarablus. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish forces an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a domestic group it deems a terrorist organization.
In a speech Tuesday, Hollande said “multiple, contradictory interventions carry the risk of a general inflammation” of the fighting that has devastated the country.
He said he could understand Turkey’s concern about protecting its borders and fighting the Islamic State group, but criticized Ankara’s actions against Kurdish rebels allied with the U.S.-led coalition who are fighting the extremists. France is part of that coalition.
Shervan Darwish, a spokesman for the Manbij Military Council, part of the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces, said the militants used at least three car bombs in Tuesday’s attacks. The SDF, aided by airstrikes from the U.S-led coalition, repelled the attack initially but Darwish said clashes continued on Tuesday. In a statement on Twitter, IS said they seized two villages in the area.
“The Turkish occupation of parts of Syria hampers the war against terrorism and by targeting us (the Turkey-backed forces) gave Daesh the space to reorganize its ranks and attack us,” Darwish told The Associated Press, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Turkish troops and the Syrian rebels they are backing are “aiming for our troops, not Daesh,” Darwish added.
Turkey’s president vowed to press ahead with the military operation until IS and Kurdish Syrian fighters no longer pose a security threat to Ankara. In comments published Tuesday in the pro-government newspaper, Daily Sabah, Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin called on the U.S. to “revise their policy of supporting (the Kurdish-led force) at all costs.”
The Kurdish-led forces “are shamelessly using the war in Syria to create a de facto terrorist state in Syria,” the spokesman wrote. “Turkey will not allow that.”
Last week, Turkey sent its troops and warplanes to back Syrian rebels in their advance on Jarablus, a town close to the Turkish border and the next IS-stronghold after Manbij. The incursion prompted clashes between the two U.S.-allies — Syrian rebels and Kurdish fighters.
In recent months, the U.S.-led allied Kurdish forces have gained control of most of the territory along the Turkey-Syria border, reinforcing the ethnic group’s aspirations for a contiguous autonomous region there.
The U.S. on Monday urged Turkish troops and Kurdish forces in northern Syria to halt their fighting, saying the clashes were hindering efforts to defeat IS.
Turkey appears determined to create a de facto “safe zone” free of IS and the Kurds near its border. The Turkish military said Turkey-backed Syrian rebels — a mix of various Islamist rebel factions — have cleared several villages of “terrorist entities” and now control an area totaling some 400 square kilometers (about 150 square miles) south and west of Jarablus.
On Tuesday, Turkish-backed rebels posted footage of their troops praying and walking through villages they captured north of Manbij, across the Sajour River, a Euphrates tributary.
Darwish said SDF forces have pulled back to south of the Sajour and into the Manbij area, a move unlikely to be accepted by Turkey since Ankara wants them to withdraw completely east of the Euphrates river.
He said Turkey-backed rebels shelled a village south of Jarablus, killing at least five civilians. He accused Turkey of targeting civilians. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said five people were killed in shelling on the village of al-Dandanieh, in rural Manbij. The Observatory said it was not clear if IS or Turkey-backed rebels were behind the shelling.
In Paris, Hollande urged Russia to cooperate with the U.S.-led coalition and said he would invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to France in October, saying Russia should be “a player in negotiations, not a protagonist in the action.”
Hollande said Assad’s regime uses Russian military support to carry out bomb attacks on civilians, which “plays into the hands of extremists”.
Hollande said “the absolute urgency is a halt to fighting and a return to negotiations.” He also called for an “immediate truce” in the city of Aleppo, a main battlefield in Syria’s five-year civil war.
Stojanovic contributed to this report from Istanbul. Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report from Paris.