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Turkey launches offensive against Syrian Kurds

January 19, 2018

The Turkish defense minister has announced the beginning of a military offensive against the Syrian Kurdish held enclave of Afrin. The YPG, a Kurdish militia that has received US support, vowed to defend its territories.

Turkey-backed Free Syrian Forces have joined in the fight to oust Kurdish forces from Afrin
Turkey-backed Free Syrian Forces have joined in the fight to oust Kurdish forces from AfrinImage: picture alliance/dpa/abaca/O. Coban

Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli on Friday said a military campaign aimed at ousting Kurdish forces from their enclave in Afrin "has de facto started" due to 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, Turkey has dubbed it a terrorist group for its alleged ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Kurdish group waging a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

Read more: The Middle East's complex Kurdish landscape

"All terror networks and elements in northern Syria will be eliminated. There is no other way," Canikli told Turkish television. "The operation in central Afrin may last a long time, but the terrorist organization will swiftly come undone there."

The YPG has held Afrin since 2012 when Syrian government forces withdrew and essentially handed over  large swaths of the northern part of the country to the Syrian Kurds.

In the run-up to the offensive, Turkey transported heavy artillery and tanks near the Syrian border
In the run-up to the offensive, Turkey transported heavy artillery and tanks near the Syrian borderImage: picture alliance/dpa/Zumapress/AA

YPG vows resistance

Turkish troops on Friday launched artillery fire towards Kurdish-held positions in Afrin, continuing barrages that have hit the region all week.   

Canikli said that soldiers had not been deployed to Syria, but were instead firing at Kurdish forces from across the border.

However, Turkish media reported that 20 buses carrying Turkish-backed rebels from had crossed into Syria.

Read more: As Syrian war nears end, some can never go home

The YPG's spokesman in Afrin, Rojhat Roj, said Turkey's bombardment represented its hardest-hitting offensive since Erdogan began threatening the Kurdish-held area.

"Currently there are no casualties, all the damage is material so far," Roj said. However, the YPG spokesman warned that Kurdish forces would not back down from defending their territories.

Infographic showing areas in Syria and Iraq controlled by various armed groups


The battle for Afrin has threatened to further deteriorate relations between Turkey and its military ally, the US. Turkey has labeled the YPG a terrorist group, while Washington has supported the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against IS.

The SDF controls about 25 percent of Syrian territory in the north and northeast. However, Afrin is noncontiguous to these territories and largely surrounded by Turkey and Turkish-backed rebels. 

Read more: Turkey-US relations 'entering a risky period'

Earlier this month, the US announced plans to create a 30,000-strong stabilization force on the Syrian-Turkish border, including many Kurdish fighters. Washington said the force aimed to prevent a resurgence of IS in Syria.

"The threat of Daesh has been removed in both Syria and Iraq. With this reality out in the open, a 'focus on Daesh' statement is truly a meaningless remark," said Canikli, referring to the militant group by its Arabic acronym.

cw, ls/kms (AFP, Reuters, AP)