Turkish forces push into Syria, Kurdish militia says attacks repulsed
AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Turkish ground forces pushed into northern Syria’s Afrin province on Sunday, Ankara said after launching artillery and air strikes on a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia it aims to sweep from its border.
The Syrian-Kurdish YPG militia, supported by the United States but seen as a terrorist organization by Turkey, said it had repulsed the Turkish forces and their allies after fierce clashes.
It marked the second day of fighting after Turkey opened a new front in the nearly seven-year-old Syrian war. Under what Ankara has called “Operation Olive Branch”, Turkish air strikes on Saturday pounded YPG positions in Afrin.
Turkey is targeting the U.S.-backed fighters at a time when ties with ally Washington appear close to breaking point.
Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has carried out a deadly, three-decade insurgency in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast. The United States is backing the YPG in Syria, seeing it as an effective partner in the fight against Islamic State.
“Our jets took off and started bombing. And now, the ground operation is underway. Now we see how the YPG … are fleeing in Afrin,” President Tayyip Erdogan said. “We will chase them. God willing, we will complete this operation very quickly.”
Erdogan said some of Turkey’s allies had provided the YPG with 2,000 plane shipments and 5,000 truckloads of ammunition, comments that appeared to be aimed at the United States.
The attacks follow weeks of warnings against the YPG in Syria from Erdogan and his ministers. Turkey has been particularly outraged by an announcement that the United States planned to train 30,000 personnel in parts of northeast Syria under the control of the YPG-spearheaded Syrian Democratic Forces.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the Turkish military, NATO’s second-largest, would create a 30-km (19-mile) “safe zone” in the region, according to broadcaster HaberTurk.
Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army rebel factions had captured a Kurdish village with no resistance and were clearing landmines, a Turkish official said.
The YPG said it had repulsed the Turkish forces.
“All the Turkish military’s ground attacks against Afrin have been repelled so far and they have been forced to retreat,” Nouri Mahmoudi, a YPG official, said. Since the morning, the combatants have exchanged shelling and clashed along several frontlines around Afrin, he said.
Thousands rallied against the attacks in the border town of Amuda in northwest Syria, vowing to stand against “Turkish occupation”, according to a local witness.
The Turkish military said it had hit 153 targets so far, including shelters and hideouts used by Kurdish militants. The YPG has said Turkey’s strikes killed six civilians and three of its fighters and wounded 13 civilians.
The YPG has also accused Turkey of striking civilian districts and a camp for the displaced in Afrin.
Intense Turkish artillery fire and strikes continued to hit some villages, the YPG said. Fierce battles raged to the north and west of Afrin against Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies, said Birusk Hasaka, the YPG spokesman in Afrin.
Western governments have largely urged calm, with the United States saying the focus should be on fighting Islamic State in Syria.
France asked Turkey to act with restraint, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said after speaking by phone with his Turkish counterpart. He said France would call for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, will demand in the United Nations that Turkey halt it’s military operation in Afrin, RIA news quoted Franz Klintsevich, a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament’s security committee, as saying on Saturday.
At a training camp near the border, about 200 fighters from the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army factions drilled on a parade ground. Some were in different khaki-colored uniforms, some in jeans and sneakers.
Lieutenant-colonel Mohammad al Hamadeen, a rebel spokesman, said a ground offensive was due to begin within hours against the YPG.
“The military operation started this morning with the invasion of the northwestern areas of Afrin. And they will start in the eastern area of Afrin,” he told Reuters.
A Reuters reporter on the outskirts of the northern Syrian town of Azaz, under the control of rebels from Free Syrian Army factions, heard several blasts and saw smoke rising from a hill to the west, where a fighter said the YPG were.
There were no signs of conflict in the town itself, where life appeared to continue as normal with traffic on the muddy, potholed roads and uniformed rebel police at the main roundabouts. Still, Azaz was bleak and the toll from the war was plainly seen in some of its crumbling buildings.
At one of the car repair workshops on the outskirts of the town some men were fixing a gun-loaded vehicle.
On Saturday, a Pentagon official said: “We encourage all parties to avoid escalation and to focus on the most important task of defeating ISIS (Islamic State).”
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported that four rockets fired from Syria hit the border town of Kilis overnight, damaging houses. Turkish security forces retaliated, it said.
Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Orhan Coskun, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Ellen Francis in Beirut; Geert De Clercq in Paris; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Janet Lawrence