Turkish Troops Shell Syria’s Afrin to Oust US-Backed Kurdish Militia

A Turkish military convoy arrives at an army base in the border town of Reyhanli near the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay Province, Turkey.A Turkish military convoy arrives at an army base in the border town of Reyhanli near the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay Province, Turkey.

Turkey on Friday started shelling the Syrian town of Afrin held by a US-backed Kurdish militia that Ankara considers "terrorists" in a move to oust them, the defense minister said.

The Turkish government has repeatedly warned that a full-scale operation against Syrian towns controlled by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia, including Afrin, is imminent after the US said it was training a 30,000-strong border force there, The New Arab reported.

"The Afrin operation will take place," Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli told A Haber television.

"The presence of all the terror lines in northern Syria will be removed. There's no other way out," he said.       

Local media reports on Thursday said concrete blocks from a wall built along the Syrian border were removed in 12 places to facilitate the movement of Turkish armored units into Afrin.

“We have to create the ideal conditions to minimize potential losses. We will show such attention to detail at every stage of the operation,” said Canikli.

“The threats directed towards Turkey are rising each passing day.”

Turkish troops fired on several YPG targets in Afrin to prevent the formation of a “terror corridor” on the border, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

Army howitzers in the frontier Hatay Province launched at least 10 rounds of artillery fire, targeting the “terror nests of the terror organization in Afrin,” Anadolu said.

A military convoy of 20 buses carrying Syrian opposition rebels backed by Ankara also crossed over into Syria, Turkish media reported.  

Canikli said with the shelling “in fact, the operation has de facto started.”

Asked about the timing of a ground incursion, Canikli said, “It could be tomorrow, it could be in the evening. What we say is that this operation will take place.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had reacted with fury to the announcement of the US-backed border force on Syria’s northern frontier with Turkey, denouncing it as an “army of terror”.

The YPG is a major bone of contention in ties between Ankara and Washington which considers it a key ally in fighting the self-styled Islamic State terrorist group.

Turkey accuses the YPG of being a branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has waged an insurgency in its southeast since 1984.

Turkey needs the green light from Russia for a full cross-border operation because of Moscow’s military presence in the area.

In a surprise development, Turkey’s army chief General Hulusi Akar and spy chief Hakan Fidan were in Moscow on Thursday for talks with Russian counterparts on security issues and Syria.

Russia has based military observers in Afrin since 2015, and the subject of their removal was part of negotiations between Turkey and Russia.

  US Calls for Reconsideration

On Thursday, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called on Turkey to reconsider military action in Afrin, Middle East Eye reported

“We would call on the Turks to not take any actions of that sort. We don’t want them to engage in violence but we want them to keep focused on Daesh [an Arabic term used for the Islamic State group],” she said.

Her remarks came after Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, tried to calm Turkish nerves by saying a US military announcement about the construction of a Syrian border, mainly made up of Syrian Kurds, was misconstrued.

Turkey has dismissed US assurances.

“This operation will happen and the fight against terror will be carried out. Every country has its own policy on what is happening in Syria. They try to somehow influence groups there,” said Canikli.

  Syria Warning

The Syrian government warned Turkey against launching a bombing campaign in Afrin, saying its air defenses may be used.

“We warn the Turkish leadership that if they initiate combat operations in the Afrin area, that will be considered an act of aggression by the Turkish Army,” Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad said in a statement reported by state media, RT reported.

“The Syrian air defenses have restored their full force and they are ready to destroy Turkish aviation targets in Syrian Arab Republic skies,” it added.

Canikli also responded to the Syrian government’s warning that it would shoot down Turkish aircraft in its airspace.

“We know that Russia gives the regime massive support. We know the regime is limited in its capacity to do what it says on its own. It is very slippery ground,” he said.

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