Turkey hits Syrian Kurd militia in Afrin

Reyhanli: The Turkish army on Saturday launched new strikes against Kurdish militia in northern Syria as preparations intensified for a cross-border ground operation that has alarmed the United States. Dubbing the new campaign operation “Olive Branch”, the Turkish army said it had begun at 1400 GMT and was aimed against the YPG and also IS. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that Ankara has launched an operation on the ground to oust Kurdish militia from the Syrian town of Afrin.
“The Afrin operation has de-facto been started on the ground,” Erdogan said in a televised speech in the city of Kutahya, without elaborating.
“This will be followed by Manbij,” he added, referring to another Kurdish-controlled Syrian town to the east. Afrin and Manbij are controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) Syrian Kurdish militia, which Ankara regards as a terror group.
Turkey has in recent days sent dozens of military vehicles and hundreds of troops to the border area amid repeated threats from top officials that an operation could be launched at any moment.
Turkish forces have over the last two days shelled YPG targets around Afrin and also mobilised pro-Ankara rebel fighters in Syria for the offensive.
“The promises made to us over Manbij were not kept. So nobody can object if we do what is necessary,” said Erdogan, referring to past American assurances that the YPG would move out of Afrin. “Later we will, step by step, clear our country up to the Iraqi border from this terror filth that is trying to besiege our country.”
He added that Turkey would “step by step” destroy a “terror corridor” that he said had been set up by the YPG. Turkey accuses the YPG of being the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has waged a rebellion in the Turkish southeast for more than three decades and is regarded as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.
But the YPG has been the key ally of Turkey’s fellow Nato member the US in the fight against IS cadres, playing a key role in pushing the extremists out of their Syrian strongholds.
Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad warned on Thursday that the Syrian air force could destroy any Turkish warplanes used in a threatened assault on the war-torn country. Analysts say that crucial for any major ground operation will be approval from Moscow which has a military presence in the area and a cordial relationship with the YPG.
With conspicuous timing, Turkey’s army chief General Hulusi Akar and spy chief Hakan Fidan were in Moscow on Thursday for talks with Russian counterparts on Syria.
“A full Turkish air and ground offensive will not take place without Moscow’s blessing,” said Anthony Skinner, Director MENA at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
Meanwhile, the Turkish threats of an intervention have also raised eyebrows in Washington, which has backed the YPG as it dislodged IS and gained control of the swathe of northern Syria up to the Iraqi border.
The YPG-held enclave of Afrin marks the westernmost extent of its control and Turkey wants to make sure it is kept well to the east of the Euphrates River.
“We do not believe that a military operation… serves the cause of regional stability, Syrian stability, or indeed Turkish concerns about the security of their border,” a senior US State Department official said on Friday. Skinner said a Turkish operation would be a “serious blow” for the US-led coalition in Syria which still depended heavily on the YPG to stabilise the area after the ousting of IS from major towns.
Erdogan had reacted furiously this week to an announcement of plans to create a US-backed 30,000-strong border security force in northern Syria composed partly of YPG fighters, describing it as an “army of terror”.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later said the “entire situation has been mis-portrayed, mis-described”, admitting “we owe them (Turkey) an explanation. But Erdogan appeared to scoff at the mixed messages and lashed out at American military support for the YPG. “We don’t care what they say,” he warned. “They will learn how wrong it is to trust a terror organisation.” — Agencies