AMMAN: Turkish warplanes and artillery bombarded Kurdish positions in northwestern Syria on Sunday in the second day of an attack that has left 14 civilians dead and more than a dozen others injured, sources on the ground told Syria Direct.
Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels attacked Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) at military positions and towns on the edges of Afrin canton along the Turkish-Syrian border on Sunday with support from the Turkish army and airforce.
Turkish state media reported that Ankara-backed forces “advanced five kilometers inside Afrin” on Sunday, but YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud denied any advance by the Turkish army or FSA, telling Syria Direct that the YPG had “repelled” attacks on its positions.
Sunday’s fighting comes on the second day of an offensive dubbed “Operation Olive Branch” launched by Turkey on Saturday with the aim of “eliminating terrorists” near the country’s border with northwestern Syria, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported at the time.
Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist organization because of its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, with which Ankara has been embroiled in an internal conflict for decades. Continued American support for YPG militants fighting against the Islamic State in Syria has long beleaguered US-Turkey relations.
For months, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has alluded to a planned military operation to remove the YPG from Afrin canton, a Kurdish-majority, de facto autonomous territory in northwestern Aleppo province. The YPG is the dominant military force in Afrin.
YPG fighters in Afrin city on Sunday. Photo courtesy of YPG.
Afrin is one of the most isolated—and therefore vulnerable—areas of Kurdish control in northern Syria. The canton is surrounded by the Turkish border to the north and west, and territory held by Ankara-backed FSA rebels to the east. In northern Idlib province to Afrin’s south, the Turkish army has established observation posts as part of a Russian-, Iranian- and Turkish-backed de-escalation deal signed in May.
With the exception of YPG fighters based in one district of government-held Aleppo city, the closest friendly Kurdish forces to Afrin are 90km to the east, in a large swathe of northeastern Syria controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkish-backed rebels hold the territory in between the two Kurdish enclaves, cutting off the YPG in Afrin from its allies to the east.
Over the past two days of Operation Olive Branch, Turkish artillery and warplanes struck at least 153 YPG targets in Afrin, the Turkish government-run Anadolu Agency reported on Sunday.
“The bombardment has not ceased since yesterday,” YPG spokesman Brosk Hasakah told Syria Direct from Afrin, Sunday afternoon.
A Turkish airstrike reportedly hit a poultry farm in the Afrin village of Jalbara on Sunday evening, killing eight civilians, Hasakah said.
The previous day, Turkish warplanes reportedly struck the al-Ashrafiya neighborhood in Afrin city, killing six civilians, including a child, spokesman Nouri Mahmoud told Syria Direct. Three YPG fighters were also killed in the bombing attack, he added.
Syria Direct could not independently confirm the attacks.
The aftermath of a Turkish airstrike in Afrin city. Photo courtesy of Kurdistan24.
While the United States supports YPG forces as part of the SDF currently battling IS in Syria’s eastern desert, the US-led coalition has not intervened so far during the attack on Afrin.
Many YPG fighters currently in Afrin were with SDF units “directly supported” by the US-led coalition while fighting IS in other parts of Syria, a coalition spokesperson told Syria Direct by email on Friday, the day before Ankara’s operation began.
However, the coalition “does not currently provide support to YPG units in Afrin,” the spokesperson said.
Operation Olive Branch is only the latest Turkish military incursion into Syria. In August 2016, the Turkish army and Ankara-backed FSA fighters attacked Islamic State positions in northern Aleppo province within battles called Operation Euphrates Shield. Turkish forces officially ended the operation in March 2017, but Euphrates Shield rebels remain in control of much of northern Aleppo province.
The Syrian government condemned Ankara’s Afrin operation on Sunday, calling it the “latest step in Turkish attacks on Syrian sovereignty,” Syrian state news outlet SANA reported.
“Syria calls on the international community to condemn this Turkish aggression and immediately take the steps necessary to stop it,” a representative from the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told SANA.
For civilians in Afrin city, where there is no ground fighting, daily life continues against a backdrop of the sounds of warplanes and nearby bombardment.
“Even as I talk to you, there are planes flying in the sky overhead,” local school teacher Sara Khalil told Syria Direct on Sunday.