ANKARA: Turkey says it has launched a much-awaited air and ground offensive against the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin in northern Syria.
After days of shelling, Turkish fighter jets on Saturday carried out air raids on the border district targeting positions held by the Syrian Kurdish PYD and YPG groups.
The heavy bombardment began as units of pro-Ankara rebels known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) started moving into Afrin, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that the operation in Afrin would be followed by a push in the northern town of Manbij, which the US-backed Kurdish forces captured from ISIL in 2016, reported by Aljazeera.
Turkey considers Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the YPG, “terrorist groups” with ties to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long fight inside Turkey.
Erdogan said that all Kurdish armed groups “are all the same” and that changing their names “does not change the fact that they are terror organisations”.
According to estimates, there are between 8,000 to 10,000 Kurdish fighters in the Afrin area.
Turkish Chief of General Staff said on late Saturday that only terrorists, their shelters, buildings, weapons, and vehicles would be targeted in Syria’s Afrin region as part of “Operation Olive Branch” – the name of the operation conducting in Afrin region.
“Every kind of attention and sensitivity will be shown so that civilians and innocent people will not be harmed,” Gen Hulusi Akar said in a video footage released by the Turkish General Staff.
Turkey started the operation on Saturday at 5 pm [1400GMT] in Afrin.
Earlier, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters in a joint news conference with the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli in Ankara, that the ground units of Turkish military is likely to join operation in Syria’s Afrin on Sunday.
The prime minister said the first phase of “Operation Olive Branch” was conducted by air forces and ‘nearly all’ targets were destroyed.
In separate, Turkish main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu also expressed his “support” for the operation, wishing luck to Turkish soldiers in the region.
According to the Turkish military, the operation is carried out under the framework of Turkey’s rights based on international law, UN Security Council’s decisions and self-defence right under UN charter.
Turkey informed countries regarding Afrin
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Turkish NTV broadcaster in a live interview on Saturday said Turkish authorities have informed the Syrian regime about the ‘Operation Olive Branch’.
“This does not mean that we have taken permission from them. We have sent such a note because we are acting in accordance with the international law,” he added.
This was not the first time Turkey sent a note, Turkish foreign minister said and added that similar statement was sent to the regime during the Euphrates Shield Operation in Syria in 2016.
Meanwhile, ambassadors of Britain, France, and China in Ankara were called to Turkish Foreign Ministry on late Saturday and informed about the military operation in Syria’s Afrin, a diplomatic official said.
Earlier, the US, Russia, and Iranian mission heads in Ankara were also informed about the Turkish military operation, which is dubbed as “Operation Olive Branch”.
However, Pentagon’s spokesman Adrian Rankine-Galloway in a statement came after Turkey launched an operation, “We recognize Turkey’s security concerns about the PKK, a US-designated foreign terrorist organisation,” and does not provide any support to PKK.
Rankine-Galloway also called on “all parties” to avoid escalation and to focus on Daesh.
Turkey’s operation against Kurds in Afrin area in Syria may create certain complications for the forthcoming Syrian National Dialogue Congress, State Duma’s defence committee chairman Vladimir Shamanov told TASS.
“This will introduce certain complications for the start of the inter-Syrian dialog in Sochi,” the Member of Parliament said. Developments are “a painful topic,” Shamanov said.
“The [Syrian] government said they would perceive it as interference with domestic affairs,” he noted.
“That’s why I do not exclude that this may somehow influence on activities scheduled to January 29-30,” the member of parliament added.
“It’s difficult to speak about this because it was an undesirable precedent on the verge of the planned congress for a reconciliation of the parties in Syria,” Shamanov said.
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from Antakya in Turkey, said the launch of the operation followed a week of “increasingly strong political rhetoric” coming from Turkish officials.
“The Turkish army says it is only targeting what it calls ‘terrorists’ … and not civilians – but certainly it will be terrifying for civilians in that area because they are surrounded,” she added.
“To highlight the complexity of this war, there is now a NATO ally, Turkey, bombing a group that the US calls its best ally when it was fighting ISIL on the ground and still continues to do so – so it’s an incredibly complicated situation.”
In recent days, Ankara has been repeatedly threatening to crush the Syrian Kurdish fighters.
On Friday, Turkey mobilised thousands of FSA rebels to Hatay province near the Syrian border, as part of the planned offensive.
Last year, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield, in which Turkish-backed FSA rebels cleared a large part of northern Syria of armed fighters.
“The language coming from the Turks has been that the Afrin operation is going to be the start, then they are going to move into Manbij and then all the way to the Iraqi border,” Dekker told Aljazeera.
“Manbij is a town west of the Euphrates, the YPG remains there and Turkey always wanted the YPG to move east of the Euphrates. The last time there was a confrontation there between the two sides the Americans moved in with troops and vehicles to calm that down.”
Following the start of Turkey’s air campaign, the defence ministry of Russia, which controls the airspace over Afrin, said it was pulling back soldiers that had been deployed near the city.
It said in a statement that “to prevent possible provocations, to exclude the threat to life and health of Russian servicemen, the operational group of the Centre for Reconciliation of warring parties and military police in the Afrin area is relocated to the Tell-Adjar area”.
Moscow’s military intervention in Syria in 2015 turned the war in favour of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Meanwhile, Stephane Dujarric, spokesman of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, warned against more military activities in Syria.
“We’ve seen the reports of shelling in Afrin. We reiterate our call on all concerned parties to avoid further escalation and any acts that could deepen the suffering of the Syrian people,” Dujarric said.
“All parties must ensure protection of civilians at all times, under any circumstances.”
The US had also urged Turkey to avoid taking action against the Kurdish rebels, urging Ankara to keep its focus on ISIL.
There have been reports that the US was also trying to recruit Kurdish fighters in Syria to fight against ISIL.
In response, Turkey warned that its relations with the US would be “irreversibly harmed” if Washington moves to form the 30,000-strong army in the north of Syria.