HASSA, Turkey, Jan 20, (RTRS): Turkish warplanes struck positions of a US-backed Kurdish militia in Syria’s Afrin province on Saturday, opening a new front in the Syrian civil war and raising the prospect of deeper strains between Turkey and Washington.
The operation sees Ankara confronting Kurdish fighters allied to the United States at a time when relations between Turkey and Washington – NATO allies and members of the coalition against Islamic State – appear dangerously close to a breaking point. Turkey’s move could also complicate its push to improve ties with Russia. Moscow will demand in the United Nations that Turkey halt the its military operation, a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament’s security committee told RIA news on Saturday. The bombing raids targeted the Syrian-Kurdish YPG militia, a senior Turkish official said.
A Turkey-backed rebel group in Syria, the Free Syrian Army, was also providing assistance to the Turkish military’s operation in Afrin, the official added. The YPG said a number of people had been wounded in the air strikes, but said it remained unclear how many.
There were currently no clashes between Turkish forces and the YPG, “only skirmishes” at the edge of the Afrin region, according to Rojhat Roj, a YPG spokesman in Afrin. Reuters cameramen in Hassa, near the border with Syria, heard the sound of heavy bombardment and saw thick plumes of smoke rising from the Syrian side of the border. The warplanes appeared to be striking from the Turkish side of the border, one of the cameramen said.
The attacks, which Turkey is calling Operation Olive Branch, follow weeks of warnings against the YPG in Syria from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ministers. Turkey considers the YPG to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has carried out a deadly, threedecade insurgency in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast. The YPG’s growing strength across a swath of northern Syria has alarmed Ankara, which fears the creation of an independent Kurdish state on its southern border.
The Turkish military said its operation in Afrin was to provide safety for Turkey’s border and to “eliminate terrorists and save friends and brothers, the people of the region, from their cruelty.” “We will destroy the terror corridor gradually as we did in Jarabulus and Al-Bab operations, starting from the west,” Turkey’s Erdogan said, referring to previous operations in northern Syria designed to push out Islamic State and check the YPG’s advance.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces accused Turkey on Saturday of using cross-border shelling as a false pretext to launch an offensive in Syria. The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias fighting Islamic State, said it would have no choice but to defend itself if attacked.
The Kurdish-led SDF controls swathes of north and east Syria. Meanwhile, Syrian troops and allied forces seized an air base in Idlib province on Saturday, pressing their offensive into the country’s largest insurgent stronghold, state television said. The province in northwest Syria has become a focal point of the war, with government forces taking scores of villages in recent weeks. With the help of Iran-backed militias and Russian air power, they advanced towards Abu al-Duhur military airport, where rebels had ousted the army in 2015. Since mid-December, fighting has forced more than 212,000 people to fl ee their homes in the south of Idlib and nearby parts of Hama and Aleppo provinces, the United Nations says.