ISTANBUL - Turkey’s army chief signalled no let up in a Syria offensive Washington has criticised for targeting US-backed Kurdish fighters as well as jihadists, and said its successes showed last month’s failed coup had not dented the military’s power.

A ceasefire is holding between Turkey and Kurdish-backed militia in northern Syria, a Kurdish military official said on Tuesday, but a Syrian rebel commander characterised it only as a "pause" and added that military operations would resume soon.

The truce is between the Jarablus Military Council and Turkey, said Sharfan Darwish, spokesman for the Manbij Military Council.

Both councils are allied with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance of groups including the powerful Kurdish YPG militia that is fighting Islamic State insurgents and has expanded along Syria's frontier with Turkey.  Meanwhile, the Islamic State group on Tuesday said its spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani was killed while monitoring military operations in the Syrian province of Aleppo.

Quoting a "military source", the IS news agency Amaq said "Sheikh Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, the spokesman of the Islamic State, was martyred while surveying operations to repel the military campaigns against Aleppo".

Turkish-backed forces began the offensive last week by capturing the Syrian frontier town of Jarablus from Islamic State; they then advanced on areas controlled by Kurdish-aligned militias which have US support in battling jihadists.

Turkey, which is fighting a Kurdish insurgency at home, has openly said the operation dubbed “Euphrates Shield” has a dual goal of driving away Islamic State and preventing Kurdish forces extending their areas of control along the Turkish border.

Washington said the offensive by its NATO ally risked undermining the fight against Islamic State because it was focusing on Kurdish-aligned militias. Ankara says it will not take orders from anyone on how to protect the nation.

“By pursuing the Euphrates Shield operation, which is crucial for our national security and for our neighbours’ security, the Turkish Armed Forces are showing they have lost none of their strength,” Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar said in a statement on Tuesday to mark a national holiday.

On the eve of the Victory Day holiday, President Tayyip Erdogan said the operation would continue until all threats, including that of Kurdish militia fighters, were removed from the border area.

Turkey is still reeling from an attempted coup in July in which rogue military commanders used warplanes and tanks to try to oust Erdogan and the government, exposing splits in the ranks of NATO’s second biggest military.

In a subsequent purge of suspected coup sympathisers, 80,000 people have been removed from both civilian and military duties, including many generals, officers and rank-and-file soldiers.

Echoing US concerns about the Turkish offensive in Syria, French President Francois Hollande said he understood Turkey’s need to defend itself from Islamic State but that targeting Kurdish forces which were battling jihadists could further inflame the five-year-old Syrian conflict.

 

“Those multiple, contradictory interventions carry risks of a general flare-up,” he told a meeting of French ambassadors.

Criticism by any Western powers will add to tensions with Ankara, which has accused the United States and Europe of proving poor allies by calling for restraint as the government rounded up coup sympathisers, and failing to appreciate the depth of the threat the coup presented to Turkey’s democracy.

US Vice President Joe Biden visited Ankara last week to try to patch up ties and voice support for the government. But this week, US officials described the current direction of the offensive as “unacceptable”.

In its northern Syria offensive, Turkish forces and their rebel allies have taken a string of villages in areas controlled by the Kurdish-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and advanced towards Manbij, a city the SDF seized from Islamic State this month in a US-backed campaign.

Turkey says its forces have struck multiple positions held by the Kurdish YPG militia, part of the SDF coalition.

The YPG says its forces withdrew from the region before the Turkish assault and have already crossed the Euphrates, in line with a demand from the United States to withdraw to the eastern side of the river that flows through Syria or lose US support.

Turkey wants to stop Kurdish forces taking control of territory that lies between cantons to the east and west that they already hold, and so creating an unbroken Kurdish- controlled corridor on Turkey’s southern border.

Meanwhile, United Nations aid contracts worth tens of millions of dollars have gone to people closely associated with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite US and EU sanctions, the Guardian reported on Tuesday.

The newspaper’s analysis of hundreds of UN contracts granted since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 showed many awarded “to companies run by or linked to individuals under sanctions” from the EU and US.

The Guardian found that two UN agencies had partnered up with the Syria Trust charity, an organisation started and chaired by Assad’s wife Asma, spending a total of $8.5 million (7.6 million euros).

It also said the UN had given money to the state-owned fuel supplier, which is under EU sanctions, and to Syria’s national blood bank, which is controlled by Assad’s defence ministry.

Money also went to the Al-Bustan Association, owned and run by Assad’s billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf, who is Syria’s most notorious and powerful tycoon.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation had given $13.3 million to the Syrian agriculture ministry, which is on the EU sanctions list, the Guardian said.

“These contracts show how the UN operation has quietly secured deals with individuals and companies that have been designated off-limits by Europe and the US,” the Guardian said.

Reinoud Leenders, an expert in war studies at King’s College London, wrote in the Guardian that the “UN’s alleged pragmatism has long given way to troubling proximity to the regime”.

But a UN spokesman defended the contracts.

“Operating in Syria, with the conflict now entering its sixth year, forces humanitarians to make difficult choices,” the spokesman told the paper.

“When faced with having to decide whether to procure goods or services from businesses that may be affiliated with the government or let civilians go without life-saving assistance, the choice is clear: our duty is to the civilians in need,” he said.