Deadly Turkish airstrikes hit US-supported Kurdish militia in Syria’s northeast

AMMAN: A representative of the United States military visited the site of a pre-dawn attack on a US-backed Kurdish militia in northeast Syria on Tuesday, an eyewitness told Syria Direct, hours after Turkish airstrikes killed more than 20 fighters.

At two o’clock Tuesday morning, Turkish warplanes conducted more than a dozen airstrikes and three missile strikes against Kurdish fighting forces in the Mount Karachok area south of the Turkish border near the town of Derik, in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province.

The bombings targeted the headquarters of the General Command of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main Kurdish component of United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) currently battling the Islamic State in Syria.

Some 20 fighters were killed and 18 others injured in the attack, the YPG said in an online press release on Tuesday afternoon. 

The site of Turkish airstrikes against a YPG headquarters in northeastern Syria. Photo courtesy of Dilgesh Rasoul. 

“This is the first time that Derik has been subjected to this kind of direct bombing from warplanes and missiles strikes from bases in Turkey,” Dilgesh Rasoul, who works with the Self-Administration that rules the Kurdish-held northern territories told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

Hours after the attack, military helicopters landed at the scene carrying at least one United States military officer, according to videos and pictures posted online.

Rasoul, a citizen journalist who works for the Self-Administration’s Human Rights Office, was visiting the scene of the attack at the time of the visit. He told Syria Direct that the “delegation” had expressed their “displeasure” about the attack and said they would “convey the reality of what happened to coalition leadership.”

Syria Direct could not independently verify Rasoul’s account, though pictures posted online by activists on Tuesday appear to show a US military official walking, flanked by YPG personnel as well as helicopters landing at the site of the bombing.

US backing for the YPG as part of the campaign against the Islamic State in Syria has long been a point of tension between Washington and Ankara, which considers the Kurdish militia a terrorist organization.

The YPG is the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD is the most powerful political party in the swathe of Kurdish-held, de facto autonomous territories running along much of Syria’s northern border with Turkey.

The PYD has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an armed insurgency against Turkey for decades in which thousands of people have been killed.

As part of Tuesday’s assault, Turkish warplanes also bombed PKK-affiliated forces to the east in the neighboring Sinjar region of Iraqi Kurdistan. A number of Peshmerga fighters not affiliated with the PKK were also reportedly killed in Sinjar.

Ankara confirmed strikes against “terrorist PKK targets” in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday. The Turkish General Staff said in its statement that the bombings were a counter-terrorism operation against “hotbeds of terrorism,” and aimed to prevent the PKK from sending “terrorists, arms, ammunition and explosives” to Turkey.

In Syria, the YPG General Command released its own statement following the bombings, calling the incident a “cowardly attack” against its headquarters as well as a radio station and media center in the immediate vicinity.

“Journalists who work at the [YPG-linked] Rojava Voice radio station were killed, as well as YPG members,” journalist and human rights worker Rasoul told Syria Direct from the scene on Tuesday.

The YPG’s press release that reported 20 fighters killed on Tuesday did not mention journalists as being among the casualties.

Following the Turkish bombings in Iraq and Syria on Tuesday, the United States Department of Defense Press Office told Iraqi Kurdistan-based Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) that they were “monitoring the developments” and that meetings were underway “to de-escalate tensions in Sinjar, Iraq and Derik, Syria.”

A member of the US military visits the site of Turkish airstrikes on a Syrian Kurdish militia on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Diyar Ciwan.

The same day as Ankara’s attack on what it called PKK affiliates in Syria and Iraq, Turkish state media outlet Anadolu Agency reported that two blasts in eastern Turkey had killed four soldiers during “counter-terrorism operations” there.

Turkey has frequently bombed Kurdish-held territories inside its border with Iraq, and regularly strikes YPG forces in Syria with cross-border artillery fire.

However, local media sources in Syria in addition to human rights worker Rasoul described Tuesday morning’s attack near Derik as part of a worrying escalation.

“Turkey’s current moves are unprecedented,” said Rasoul.

Hours after Tuesday’s bombings, the YPG claimed “increasing Turkish military movement” along the border with Kurdish territories in northern Syria, in tweets on its official English-language Twitter account.

“Turkey is trying to start a war,” the militia tweeted.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.