Erdoğan says Turkey de facto launches Afrin operation, Manbij is next

Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Saturday that the Turkish military has de facto launched a ground operation in Syria’s northwestern province of Afrin, which is controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

“This will be followed by Manbij,” he said during a meeting of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and adding that “The promises made to us over Manbij were not kept. So nobody can object if we do what is necessary.”

“Starting from the west, we will step by step destroy this terror corridor (areas controlled by the PYD),” Erdoğan added, underlining that operations would extend to Iraqi border.

Turkish military has also said on Saturday that it retaliated against the People’s Protection Units/ Kurdistan Workers’ Party (YPG/PKK) firings from Syria’s Afrin on Jan. 19-20, destroying shelters, hideouts.  The Turkish General Staff said the army hit the shelters “within the scope of legitimate self-defense,” state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

TURKISH MILITARY: ‘THE OPERATION OLIVE BRANCH’ HAS BEEN LAUNCHED

“The Operation Olive Branch” has been launched in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region to clear terrorist groups such as the PKK and its affiliates KCK, PYD, YPG; and ISIL, the Turkish military said on Saturday in a written statement.

The Turkish General Staff’s statement published on its website is as follow: “‘Operation Olive Branch’ has been started on Jan. 20, 2018 at 5 p.m., in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region to establish security and stability on our borders and region, to eliminate terrorists of PKK/KCK/PYD-YPG and ISIL, and to save our friends and brothers… from their [ the terrorists’] oppression and cruelty.

“The operation is being conducted under the framework of Turkey’s rights based on international law, UN Security Council’s decisions especially no. 1624 (2005), 2170 (2014) and 2178 (2014) and as per the self-defense right under 51th item of UN charter, while being respectful to Syria’s territorial integrity.”

The statement has also said the operation only targets terrorists and their shelters, weapons and material belonging to them. It said the operation will also take sensitivity into account and no civilian/innocent person would be harmed.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency (AA) has reported on Saturday that Turkish jets destroyed observation posts and many other targets of PYD/PKK  in Afrin. The strikes were reported after Turkish jets had been heard flying in southern Hatay province’s Reyhanlı and Kırıkhan districts near Syrian border.

AA has said that explosions were also heard in Turkish side of border from Afrin after the jets crossed Turkey-Syria border. Following Turkish Armed Forces’ artillery shootings targeting terror zones, Free Syrian Army (FSA) members have also entered Afrin via armored vehicles from Kilis-Hatay border zone. The FSA fighters did not face any resistance when they entered Afrin. Turkish military units are already deployed in Afrin, a district of Aleppo near the Turkish-Syria border, which is under siege by the PYD/PKK terrorist organisation.

Pro-Kurdish Fırat news agency (ANF) has also reported that Turkish army carried out airstrikes on Afrin city centre and districts Saturday evening. According to initial reports, 7 civilians got wounded as a result of strikes. Three of these suffered critical injuries and two children are among the wounded. According to the report, following the raids by the Turkish army and FSA targeting the positions of YPG/YPJ forces in several locations of Afrin and Shehba last night, 6 FSA members were killed and 17 others were wounded.

It was also reported that Turkish warplanes have been bombing Afrin center as well as its Cindirêsê, Reco, Shera, Shêrawa and Mabata districts.

However, Rojhat Roj, a YPG spokesman in Afrin, told Reuters that the strikes wounded a number of people but it remained unclear how many. Roj said there were currently no clashes between Turkish forces and the YPG, “only skirmishes” at the edge of the Afrin region.

RUSSIA TO DEMAND IN UN THAT TURKEY HALTS RAIDS

Meanwhile, Russian, US and Iranian ambassadors and deputy chiefs of mission were summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry on Saturday for briefings on the cross-border military operation Turkish forces began carrying out in Afrin on the same day, Turkish Foreign Ministry sources said.

A Turkish foreign ministry official has also said that Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu held talks with US counterpart Rex Tillerson in the wake of the announcement of the air strikes, at Washington’s request, Agence France-Presse reported.

Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov has spoken on the phone with his US counterpart General Joseph Dunford following Turkey’s military engagements in Syria, RIA news agency reported on Saturday, citing the Russian Defense Ministry. Details of the call have not been disclosed.

According to a report by AFP, Russia has also voiced concern and called restraint over Turkey’s military operation northwestern Syrian enclave of Afrin, and responded by withdrawing its troops from the region. “Moscow is concerned at this news. We call on the opposing parties to show restraint,” the foreign ministry said in a statement quoted by AFP.

The Russian defence ministry said its troops were withdrawing from the area “to prevent potential provocation and exclude the threat to the life and wellbeing of Russian military,” and said it is “attentively monitoring the development of the situation,” according to AFP.

Russia will support Syria diplomatically and will demand in the United Nations that Turkey halt its military operation in Syria’s Afrin, a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament’s security committee told RIA news on Saturday. “It is not only Syria that will demand this operation to stop. Russia will support this demand as well and will provide Syria with diplomatic assistance,” RIA quoted Franz Klintsevich as saying.

The Russian Interfax news agency has also cited the Russian Defense Ministry, saying that Russian military operational groups and military police were relocated from Afrin.

Moreover, BBC has reported that Russia’s foreign ministry says it is concerned by news of the offensive, and is urging restraint. Russian senator Frants Klintsevich, who is the deputy chairman of the defence and security committee, earlier told Interfax news agency that Moscow will only respond if Russian bases in Syria are threatened. He said that Russia has been placed in a difficult situation, as it has “good relations with both Damascus and Ankara.”

The UN on Friday has reiterated a call on all concerned parties to avoid actions that would further escalate tensions in Syria’s northern city of Afrin. “We are obviously following the situation closely. We have seen the reports of shelling in Afrin,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

Dujarric said the UN is also calling on all sides to avoid any acts that could deepen the suffering of the people. “All parties must ensure protection of civilians at all times under any circumstances,” he added.

Turkish military attacks follow weeks of warnings against the YPG in Syria from Erdoğan and his ministers. 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.

Turkey views the PYD as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Differences over Syria policy have further complicated Turkey’s already difficult relationship with NATO ally the US. Washington has backed the YPG, seeing it as an effective partner in the fight against ISIL.

The Turkish Armed Forces on Friday hit several PYD targets in the Afrin hours after the US called on Ankara not to invade Afrin. “We would certainly call on Turks not to take any action of that sort,” US State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said at a press briefing on Thursday in response to a reporter’s question about Turkey’s preparations for what is believed to be an imminent invasion.

Calling Nauert’s statement “useless and nonsense,” Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli on Friday stated that a military operation would go forward in Afrin to “remove the terrorist presence” there. But he gave no specifics on timing, saying this was part of the planning, Anadolu reported.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Thursday said the operation in Afrin would be carried out in coordination with Russia and that talks were continuing over the use of airspace.

President Erdoğan last week said Turkey would carry out a military operation in Syria’s Afrin and Manbij regions “if the terrorists do not pull out in one week.”

The Turkish military on Oct. 9 launched surveillance and reconnaissance operations in the northwestern Syrian province of İdlib as part of the multinational “Tension Reduction Control Force.”

President Erdoğan on Oct. 24 said Turkey had to a great extent completed its operation in Idlib, indicating that Afrin would be the next target.

Turkey with Free Syrian Army forces took control of the Jarablus and Al Bab areas in northern Syria during an operation against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants between August 2016 and March 2017.

More than 70 soldiers were lost during Operation Euphrates Shield, which was evaluated as a strategic move to prevent unification of areas controlled by the Kurdish PYD.

Erdoğan on Oct. 8 said Turkey would not allow a Kurdish corridor in Syria extending along the Turkish border to the Mediterranean while assessing Turkish military operations in Idlib.

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