Video: On the frontline in the Syrian border city of Azzaz
On the strategic road linking the northern Syrian border city of Azzaz to Turkey, Syrian rebel fighters backed by Ankara check vehicles to ensure Kurdish rebels do not infiltrate into Turkey.
In Syria’s mountainous Barsayah region, on a ridge overlooking Azzaz -- a historic city on the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syria border -- fighters from the Ankara-backed FSA (Free Syrian Army) are checking vehicles heading north.
Turkey views the Syrian-Kurdish YPG militia as an extension of the PKK, a Turkey-based Kurdish organisation considered a terrorist group by Ankara, the UN, US and the EU.
The YPG, however, has been backed by the US in the international fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, and the latest Turkish offensive into Syria has put Ankara at odds with its fellow NATO members.
Since Ankara launched Operation Olive Branch over the weekend, civilians have been fleeing the besieged enclave of Afrin as Turkish fighter jets have been pounding the district.
While casualty figures in the ongoing conflict have been hard to come by, the UN has warned that an estimated 323,000 civilians in Afrin are at risk and about 125,000 of them have already been displaced.
Here on the dusty highway linking Afrin to Turkey, FSA fighters, trained and armed by Ankara, are checking vehicles to prevent YPG fighters from infiltrating into Turkey.
FSA fighters stop a motorcycle making its way down the largely desolate road. “We left the day before yesterday...we fled the airstrikes with our children,” explained the motorcyclist.
While the FSA is largely comprised of Syrian Arab fighters, an FSA fighter insisted his unit had no animus against the Kurds. “God willing, it's our job to protect civilians, both here, and later on in the city of Afrin. The Kurds are our brothers -- what we're fighting against are the separatist ambitions of the YPG and the PKK.”
Different version of a Trump-Erdogan phone call
The offensive in northern Syria came as Turkey and the US offered different versions of a phone call Wednesday between Erdogan and US President Donald Trump.
A White House statement said the US president had urged his Turkish counterpart to “deescalate, limit its military actions and avoid civilian casualties.”
Turkish officials, however, disputed the White House readout saying it did not “accurately reflect” the content of the two leaders’ discussions.
According to Turkish officials, Trump did not voice "concerns (about) escalating violence" over Operation Olive Branch.
Turkish officials are saying that this White House readout of the Trump-Erdogan call is wrong - that Trump didn't express concern about the escalating violence or mention the state of emergency. https://t.co/pR1H9Y4Z8xDavidKenner (@DavidKenner) January 24, 2018
The US president did not use the phrase "destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey," in reference to anti-US statements by Turkish government officials.
Speaking to reporters in Ankara, Turkish officials who declined to be named also said that during Wednesday's call, Trump assured Turkey that the US would no longer supply Syrian Kurdish militia with weapons.