HASSA, Turkey/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey opened a new front in Syria’s war on Saturday, launching airstrikes against a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in Afrin province that raise the prospect of deeper strains between Ankara and NATO ally Washington.
The operation, which the Turks dubbed “Operation Olive Branch”, sees Ankara confronting Kurdish fighters allied to the United States at a time when relations between Turkey and Washington – both members of the coalition against Islamic State – appear dangerously close to a breaking point.
The attacks could also complicate Turkey’s push to improve ties with Russia. Moscow will demand in the United Nations that Turkey halt the military operation, RIA news reported, citing a member of the Russian parliament’s security committee.
“We are carrying out this operation from land and air,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told broadcaster NTV. He said the attacks were being carried out to target the Syrian-Kurdish YPG militia and that no civilians had been hurt.
A Turkey-backed rebel group in Syria, the Free Syrian Army, was also providing assistance to the Turkish military’s operation in Afrin, a senior Turkish official said.
The YPG said a number of people had been wounded in the air strikes.
“The aerial bombardment is still ongoing now. There are injuries. It’s still unclear how many people,” said Rojhat Roj, a YPG media official in Afrin.
He said the warplanes pounded parts of Afrin city and villages around it, while there were skirmishes with Turkish forces and their rebel allies at the edge of Afrin.
Hevi Mustafa, a top member of the civilian administration that governs Afrin, said people were holed up in shelters and homes and several wounded people had arrived in hospitals.
Reuters cameramen in Hassa, near the border with Syria, heard the sound of heavy bombardment and saw thick plumes of smoke rising from the Syrian side of the border. The warplanes appeared to be striking from the Turkish side of the border, one of the cameramen said.
The attacks follow weeks of warnings against the YPG in Syria from President Tayyip Erdogan and his ministers. Turkey considers the YPG to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has carried out a deadly, three-decade insurgency in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.
Turkish officials have said the operation is likely to continue toward Manbij.
FRIENDS AND BROTHERS
The YPG’s growing strength across a swath of northern Syria has alarmed Ankara, which fears the creation of an independent Kurdish state on its southern border. Syrian Kurdish leaders say they seek autonomy as part of Syria, not secession.
The Turkish military said its operation in Afrin was to provide safety for Turkey’s border and to “eliminate terrorists… and save friends and brothers, the people of the region, from their cruelty.”
“We will destroy the terror corridor gradually as we did in Jarabulus and Al-Bab operations, starting from the west,” Turkey’s Erdogan said, referring to previous operations in northern Syria designed to push out Islamic State and check the YPG’s advance.
Earlier on Saturday, the military said it hit shelters and hideouts used by the YPG and other Kurdish fighters, saying Kurdish militants had fired on Turkish positions inside Turkey.
But the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces – which the YPG spearheads – accused Turkey on Saturday of using cross-border shelling as a false pretext to launch an offensive in Syria.
Differences over Syria policy have further complicated Turkey’s already difficult relationship with NATO ally the United States. Washington has backed the YPG, seeing it as an effective partner in the fight against Islamic State.
A U.S. State Department official on Friday said military intervention by Turkey in Syria would undermine regional stability and would not help protect Turkey’s border security.
Instead, the United States has called on Turkey to focus on the fight against Islamic State. Ankara accuses Washington of using one terrorist group to fight another in Syria.
Additional reporting by Osman Orsal in Hassa; Orhan Coskun, Tulay Karadeniz, Gulsen Solaker and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Omer Berberoglu, Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Writing by David Dolan, Editing by William Maclean