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Turkey expects swift campaign against US-backed Kurds in Syria

Istanbul trying to drive Kurdish YPG from Afrin region

By Reuters - Jan 22,2018 - Last updated at Jan 22,2018

Members of Free Syrian Army, backed by Turkish army, are seen as they launch an operation against PYD/PKK in Afrin, as part of the ‘Operation Olive Branch’, on Monday in Azaz region of Aleppo, Syria (Anadolu Agency photo)

HASSA, Turkey — Turkey shelled targets in northwest Syria on Monday and said it would swiftly crush US-backed Kurdish YPG fighters in an air and ground offensive on the Afrin region.

The three-day-old campaign has opened a new front in Syria's multi-sided civil war, realigning a battlefield where outside powers are supporting local combatants.

While Washington and other Western capitals expressed concern, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had secured a go-ahead for the campaign from Russia, principal backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, long Turkey's foe

Turkish forces and their Syrian anti-Assad rebel allies began their push on Saturday to clear the northwestern border enclave of Kurdish YPG fighters. Ankara considers the YPG to be allies of insurgents that have fought against the Turkish state for decades. The United States, meanwhile, has armed and aided the YPG as its main ground allies against the Daesh terror group.

France called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Monday to discuss the fighting in Afrin and other parts of Syria, and Britain said it would look for ways to prevent any further escalation. 

But Erdogan said Turkey was determined to press ahead. "There's no stepping back from Afrin," he said in a speech in Ankara. "We discussed this with our Russian friends, we have an agreement with them, and we also discussed it with other coalition forces and the United States."

 Syria has strongly objected to the Turkish incursion, and Moscow, which controls parts of Syrian air space on behalf of its allies in Damascus, has not confirmed giving a green light to it. But Russia does not appear to be acting to prevent it, and has pulled its own troops out of the Afrin area.

Iran, Assad's other main military supporter, called for a halt to the operation. Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said the Afrin campaign could lead to "the return of regional terrorism and extremism", according to state television.

The YPG's Afrin spokesman, Birusk Hasaka, said there were clashes between Kurdish and Turkish-backed forces on the third day of the operation, and that Turkish shelling had hit civilian areas in Afrin's northeast.

The YPG said Afrin had already been reinforced in anticipation of the Turkish offensive, but there were discussions over whether to send more reinforcements. That could be tricky since other YPG-held territory is separated from Afrin by areas held by Syrian government forces. 

Afrin would be a "quagmire from which the Turkish army will only exit after suffering great losses", said a statement from the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group dominated by the YPG. It also called on the United States and its allies to meet their responsibilities to "our forces and our people in Afrin".

 

US-Turkey tension

 

Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist group tied to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey, and has been infuriated by US support for the YPG in the battle against Daesh in Syria — one of several issues that have brought relations between the United States and its Muslim NATO ally close to breaking point.

Erdogan has also pledged to drive the SDF from the town of Manbij to the east, part of a much larger area of northern Syria controlled by the SDF, which led the US-backed campaign to defeat Daesh in its Syrian strongholds last year. 

That raises the prospect of protracted conflict between Turkey and its allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions against the US-backed SDF.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek sought to play down the long-term risks.

"Our investors should be at ease, the impact will be limited, the operation will be brief and it will reduce the terror risk to Turkey in the period ahead," Simsek, who oversees economic affairs, said in Ankara.

A senior Turkish official declined to give a timeframe but said the operation would "move fast", adding that Turkey believed there was some local support for its action in both Afrin and Manbij.

YPG official Nouri Mahmoud said Turkish-backed forces had not taken any territory in Afrin. "Our forces have to this point repelled them and forced them to retreat," he told Reuters. 

A Turkish official said Turkish troops and Free Syrian Army fighters had begun to advance on Afrin's eastern flank, taking control of Barshah hill, northwest of the town of Azaz. 

 

Turkish shelling

 

A Reuters cameraman near Hassa, across the border from Afrin, saw Turkish shelling on Monday morning. Dogan news agency said Turkish howitzers opened fire at 1am (2200 GMT), and that YPG targets were also being hit by Turkish warplanes and multiple rocket launchers.

Turkey sees the YPG presence on its southern border as a domestic security threat. Defeating it in Afrin would reduce Kurdish-controlled territory on its frontier and link up two regions controlled by insurgents opposed to Assad — Idlib province and an area where Turkey fought for seven months in 2016-17 to drive back Daesh and the YPG.

The Turkish-backed FSA factions, which have come together under the banner of a newly branded "National Army", also want to see an end to YPG rule in Afrin. 

They accuse the YPG of displacing 150,000 Arab residents of towns including Tel Rifaat and Menigh to the east of Afrin captured in 2016.

"This is a historic moment in our revolution," Mohammad Al Hamadeen, a senior officer in the FSA forces, told fighters in Azaz on Sunday as they prepared to join the ground offensive.

 

"God willing, very soon we will return to our region that we were driven from two years ago."

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