Istanbul: Turkey on Sunday said the northern Syrian town of Tal Rifaat would be the next target of its cross-border campaign after the capture of Afrin from Syrian Kurdish militia.
“God willing, we will ensure this operation achieves its goal after taking control of Tal Rifaat in a short period of time,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in the Black Sea city of Trabzon.
Ankara launched an air and ground offensive in the enclave of Afrin in Syria in January to root out the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) there.
Turkey has branded the YPG a terrorist group but it is seen by the United States as a key player in the fight against Islamic State jihadists.
On March 18, Turkish forces and their rebel allies took full control of Afrin, with the YPG largely withdrawing without a fight.
Afrin’s capture is seen as a major step forwards for Turkey as it seeks to bolster control along its border in northern Syria.
Erdogan has repeatedly suggested that the Turkish campaign in Syria could now extend up to Qamishli — the most easterly Syrian town held by the YPG before the Iraqi border.
Tal Rifaat lies in a strategic area right in the middle between the city of Afrin and the town of Marea — which is a key rebel-held town to the east.
Taking it could connect rebel territory between Afrin and Marea.
Tens of thousands of people fleeing the Afrin offensive have travelled to Tal Rifaat, which is also very close to the key Minnigh airport, also held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) dominated by the YPG.
Tal Rifaat has changed hands several times in Syria’s war. The SDF captured it from Syrian rebels in February 2016, despite Turkey’s efforts to keep them back.