Turkish tanks roll into Syria to fight Kurdish militia

18 civilians reported killed so far in two-day operation, including 8 members of same family sheltering in building flattened by airstrike

Turkish army troops gather near the Syrian border at Hassa, in Hatay province on January 21, 2018. (AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic)
Turkish army troops gather near the Syrian border at Hassa, in Hatay province on January 21, 2018. (AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic)

HASSA, Turkey (AFP) — Turkish troops and tanks entered Syria on Sunday in the second day of an offensive against Kurdish militia, as rockets hit border towns in apparent retaliation.

Turkey on Saturday launched operation “Olive Branch” seeking to oust from the Afrin region of northern Syria the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) which Ankara considers a terror group.

But the campaign risks further increasing tensions with Turkey’s NATO ally Washington, which has supported the YPG in the fight against Islamic State jihadists and warned Ankara about distracting the focus from that fight.

In its first reaction to the offensive, the US State Department urged Turkey Sunday “to exercise restraint and ensure that its military operations remain limited in scope and duration and scrupulous to avoid civilian casualties.”

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis makes a statement at the White House in Washington, DC, on November 28, 2017. (AFP/Jim Watson)

US Defense Secretary James Mattis said Ankara had given Washington advanced warning of their operation, adding Turkey’s security concerns were “legitimate.”

Thirty-two Turkish planes destroyed a total of 45 targets including ammunition dumps and refuges used by the YPG on the second day of the operation, the Turkish army said.

Turkish troops were advancing alongside forces from the Ankara-backed rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and were already five kilometers (three miles) inside Syria, state media said. Turkish tanks could be seen lined up at the border waiting to cross into Syrian territory.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in televised comments several villages had already been taken in the advance. But a YPG spokesman claimed Turkish forces seeking to enter Afrin had been “blocked” and that it had hit two Turkish tanks.

A picture taken from the Tall Malid area, north of the Syrian city of Aleppo, shows smoke billowing from a Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) position in the area of Afrin, on January 20, 2018. (AFP Photo/Nazeer al-Khatib)

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a total of 18 civilians had been killed so far in the two-day operation, including eight members of the same family sheltering in a building that was flattened by an airstrike.

The YPG confirmed the deaths, sending out pictures of Kurdish Red Crescent rescuers retrieving bloodied bodies from a collapsed concrete structure.

Ankara, however, denied any civilian casualties, with Cavusoglu accusing the YPG of sending out “nonsense propaganda and baseless lies.”

‘A very short time’

In his first comments on the offensive since it began, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed hope the “operation will be finished in a very short time” and vowed “we will not take a step back.”

Following calls from some Turkish pro-Kurdish politicians for people to take to the streets, he warned that anyone protesting in Turkey against the operation would pay “a heavy price.” Police stopped demonstrations against the campaign taking place in the mainly Kurdish southeastern city of Diyarbakir and in Istanbul, making arrests.

Turkish police use teargas against members of the Halklarin Demokratik Partisi (Peoples Democratic Party – HDP) during a protest against Turkeys “Olive Branch” operation in Syria on January 21, 2018 in Ankara. (AFP Photo/Adem Altan)

In a sign of the risks to Turkey, six rockets fired from Syria hit the Turkish border town of Reyhanli Sunday, killing one Syrian refugee and wounding 32 people, its mayor said. Earlier, several rockets hit the Turkish border town of Kilis without causing fatalities.

The operation is Turkey’s second major incursion into Syria during the seven-year civil war after the August 2016-March 2017 Euphrates Shield campaign in an area to the east of Afrin, against both the YPG and IS.

Turkey accuses the YPG of being the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has waged a rebellion in Turkey for more than three decades and is regarded as a terror group by Ankara and the EU and US.

Afrin is an enclave of YPG control, cut off from the longer strip of northern Syria that the group controls to the east, extending to the Iraqi border which has a US military presence.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag ruled out the risk of a clash with American forces, saying they were not present in the Afrin region.

Yildirim was quoted as saying that the Turkish forces aimed to create a security zone some 30 kilometers (18 miles) deep inside Syria.

‘Brutal degradation’

The new Turkish incursion has alarmed many countries, with the UN Security Council expected to discuss the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria later Monday at France’s request.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly said the fighting “must stop” as it could deter YPG fighters helping the international coalition against IS.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France was calling the UN Security Council meeting as it was deeply worried by the “brutal degradation of the situation” in flashpoints like Afrin.

A Turkish soldier mans a turret on an infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) driving near the village of Yazi Bagh, about six kilometers from the Bab al-Salamah border crossing between Syria and Turkey in the north of Aleppo province, on January 21, 2018. (AFP Photo/Nazeer al-Khatib)

Crucial is the attitude of Russia, which has a military presence in the area and is also working with Turkey on a drive to end the civil war. The Russian foreign ministry voiced concern and urged Turkey to show restraint, while the defense ministry said its troops were withdrawing from the Afrin area to ensure their security and prevent any “provocation.”

The Turkish foreign ministry said it had informed the Syrian regime — through its Istanbul consulate — of the operation despite being at odds with Damascus throughout the civil war.

But the Syrian foreign ministry strongly denied this and President Bashar Assad slammed the offensive as “support for terrorism.”

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