Turkey said Friday that it would press ahead with a full scale assault on a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria despite pleas from the US to hold back.
Ankara has been threatening for days to send its forces into Afrin, a Syrian district near the Turkish border controlled by Kurdish forces who are allied with the US but mortal enemies of Turkey.
Turkish troops shelled the area on Friday and said it was moving units of commandos near the border as well as mobilising pro-Turkish Syrian rebel groups for the attack.
“This operation will take place; the terror organisation will be cleansed,” said Nurettin Canikli, Turkey’s defence minister. “The operation has actually de facto started with cross border shelling.”
Days before the assault, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had warned of an imminent attack against the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia in control of Afrin. Although the US has backed the YPG as one of the most capable forces fighting against the “Islamic State” (IS) militant group.
(2 days ago…Turkish buildup for the assault)
Mr Canikli said Syrian opposition fighters would lead the attack with the support of Turkish ground forces.
Turkey had sent its military chief to Moscow on Thursday to seek approval for an air campaign in Afrin, although Damascus warned it could shoot down any Turkish planes in its skies. The Kurdish city of Afrin, seen on March 18, 2015. The Turkish military began shelling……
As of Friday night, an all out ground invasion did not yet appear to be underway. Turkey has in the past promised a major incursion into northern Syria but pulled back at the last minute.
Turkey’s apparent willingness to press ahead with the attack, despite American objections, illustrates the dire state of relations between Washington and Ankara.
It is the first time that Turkey is using the air force against Afrin.
Turkey has long fumed over America’s decision to ally itself with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
The US has found the Kurds to be effective allies against the jihadists but Turkey accuses them of carrying out terrorist attacks against Turks.
Turkish anger reached boiling point this week after US officials said they were helping the YPG to train a 30,000 strong “border force” that would patrol the Syrian side of the Turkish border.
Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, hastily tried to ease tensions, insisting that it had been a mistake to call the unit a “border force” but his words have so far done little to appease the Turks.
The potential Turkish offensive is complicated by the presence of Russian troops in Afrin. Turkish state media reported that Russian soldiers had evacuated ahead of the offensive but the YPG said they remained in place.
Turkish military and intelligence chiefs travelled to Moscow this week to discuss the operation with their Russian counterparts.
The Syrian regime warned that any Turkish offensive would be considered “aggressive act” an that Syrian forces would attack Turkish aircraft.
But the regime has often issued such warnings to the myriad of foreign militaries operating inside Syria without then acting on them.