Defence Minister: Turkish shelling marks de facto start of Afrin operation

Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli said on Friday that Turkey’s operation in Syria’s Kurdish-controlled Afrin region has “de facto” begun with cross-border shelling.

“The operation has actually started de facto with cross-border shelling, except there is no border crossing,” Canikli told pro-government broadcaster aHaber. “When I say ‘de facto’, I don’t want it to be misunderstood, it has begun without border crossings.”

Canikli has also said of the upcoming operation: “It will happen.” But as Turkish forces and equipment amass at the border, he gave no specifics on timing, saying this was part of the planning. “All terror networks and elements in northern Syria will be eliminated. There is no other way,” Canikli said referring to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin, seen by Turkish government as organically linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Meanwhile, a Reuters cameraman filmed Turkish artillery at the border village of Sugediği firing shells on Friday morning into the Afrin region in northwest Syria. The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said Turkish military forces have fired around 70 shells at Kurdish villages in the Afrin region in a bombardment that began around midnight, describing it as the heaviest such attack since Turkey stepped up threats to take military action against the Kurdish region.

US: TURKISH ACTIVITY IN AFRIN DESTABILISING

According to a report by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency (AA) on Friday, in the southern Hatay province on the border with Syria, Turkish army howitzers stationed in the Kırıkhan and Hassa districts launched at least 10 rounds of artillery fire, targeting the terror nests of the terror organization in Afrin.

Pro-Kurdish Fırat news agency has also reported that Turkish army is carrying out artillery attacks on Qere Baba, Kem Rash villages, Hesharkeh bridge, surroundings of Hobake village in Afrin’s Raco region, as well as surroundings of Raco center. Reports have also suggest that Turkish troops are also shelling Xelil and Hec Hesna villages in Cindires region from the Turkish outpost located across Afrin’s Shiye district.

Reports of Turkish artillery fire into Syria’s Afrin region, if true, would undermine regional stability and would not help protect Turkey’s border security, a senior US State Department official said on Friday.

“We do not believe that a military operation serves the cause of regional stability, Syrian stability or indeed Turkish concerns about the security of their border,” the official told reporters, stressing he had limited information about Turkey’s reported military moves.

“The kind of threats or activities which these initial reports may be referring to, we don’t think advance any of these issues. They are destabilizing,” he said.

DILLON: TURKEY’S BOMBARDMENT REMAINS A CONCERN

The spokesman for the US-led Global Coalition against ISIL, Col. Ryan Dillon has also stated on Friday that Turkey’s bombardments on Afrin remains a concern. In an interview with Kurdistan 24, Dillon, stated there were serious concerns about the recent Turkish airstrikes in Syria, and called on all forces to focus on the fight against ISIL.

“The fight continues in the middle of the Euphrates river valley north of Albu Kamal [Syria],” Dillon said, adding that the coalition was still supporting its partners in the area as well as places that have been liberated from ISIL to prevent it from re-emerging.

He noted that the world owes the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forces in Syria “a great deal of gratitude for their efforts,” saying the force in the past years has done “a remarkable job” in liberating areas from the jihadist group.

The spokesperson explained that the coalition was helping the SDF in Syria to prevent ISIL militants from fleeing the country to Turkey and then to Europe, stating the Kurdish-led force will try to defend open areas at the border.

Dillon highlighted that the US-led coalition had provided military support to the SDF throughout the campaign to defeat ISIL, declaring “we could do it again if necessary” in spite of Turkey’s concerns regarding the arming of the YPG.

He mentioned that the Coalition, along with local forces, would continue to patrol liberated areas which are at risk of ISIL resurging. “We will remain in Syria until the political process and peace process takes traction,” he said.

AA has also reported on Friday that nearly 1,000 PYD/PKK militants have been deployed in the town of Tal Abyad in Syria’s northern city of Raqqah following stepped-up US reconnaissance activity in the area. Basing on the local sources in Tal Abyad, columns of US armored vehicles entered the town on Jan. 12 and 16.

The PYD/PKK groups were reportedly deployed after US forces scouted out both sides of Tal Abyad’s border crossing with Turkey’s southeastern Şanlıurfa province. The armed groups were redeployed from the village of Ayn Isa south of the nearby city of Kobani. The PYD/PKK has reportedly dispatched reinforcements to ten villages in the area, including Quneitra and Tal Fender near the Turkish border.

However, Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway of the US Marine Corps wrote to online news portal Ahval in an email that  “We do not command or control PYD/YPG forces. We did not transport 1,000 PYD/YPD forces to Tal Abyad.”

“We recognise Turkey’s security concerns about the PKK, a US-designated foreign terrorist organization. The US does not provide any support to PKK,” wrote Rankine-Galloway.

It was also reported on Friday that armed militants of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have been deployed on Turkey-Syria border. The FSA forces, served in Bab and Cobanbey towns of Syria’s northeastern Aleppo province as a part of Operation Euphrates Shield, have been referred to Hatay border in southern Turkey. Around 20 buses carrying the FSA members have reportedly moved from the southern Kilis province to Hatay under extensive security precautions.

RUSSIAN TROOPS IN AFRIN BEGUN TO BE WITHDRAWN

Russian troops stationed in Afrin region of Syria have begun to be withdrawn before a military operation by the Turkish army, Turkey’s state-run agency has reported on Friday, in a development that comes only a day after key military and intelligence talks between the two parts in Moscow.

Turkey dispatched Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar and National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan on Thursday to Moscow to hold talks with Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov. Diplomatic and military sources said the talks in Moscow were focused on the Turkish Armed Forces’ (TSK) impending military intervention into Afrin, where a few hundred Russian military observers are also situated. As Turkey has no direct official contact with the Syrian government, it transmits its requests to use Syrian air space from Russia.

On the other hand, NATO’s Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller is set to arrive in Turkey on Jan. 22, NATO said in a statement issued on Friday. She is due to visit Ankara on Jan. 22, and İstanbul on Jan. 23, the statement said. “On Monday in Ankara, Ms. Gottemoeller will hold meetings with Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Ambassador Ahmet Yıldız, and other high level officials,” read the statement.

Gottemoeller “will also visit the NATO Center of Excellence for Defense against Terrorism, and participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at Atatürk Mausoleum,” it said. In Istanbul, she is scheduled to visit the 3rd Army Corps and Multinational Joint Warfare Centre Command and deliver a speech at the National Defense University, according to the statement.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has also said on Friday that Turkey would not tolerate any threats to its national security. “Any formation that threatens the national security of Turkey will never be tolerated. This is our natural right. It is a right as part of international law and Turkish law as well,” Yıldırım said during a speech at a vehicle delivery ceremony at the Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD) in capital Ankara. PM Yıldırım added that Turkey’s aim is to eradicate terror in the region, referring to Syria.

On Sunday the US-led coalition in Syria has announced it was working with the SDF — a group dominated by the terrorist PYD/PKK — to set up and train a Syrian border protection force. Turkey has long protested US’ alleged support for the PYD/PKK, and its military wing the YPG, while Washington has called it a “reliable ally” in its fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria.

The Pentagon on Thursday dismissed the recently announced name “Border Security Force” for local security forces being trained in Syria, saying the coalition led by the US is training the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as a “stabilization” and “hold force.”

The latest development follows an announcement on Sunday by Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led coalition, officially known as the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), that the coalition was creating a 30,000-strong border security force in northern Syria. In a stark contradiction, however, the Pentagon and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Jan. 17 that the US was not creating an army or conventional border guard force.

“There was a mischaracterization of the training that we are providing to local security forces in Syria,” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon told AA. “What we are doing is designed to enable our partner forces to maintain local security, as our statement said, for people who are returning to their homes,” said Pahon. The training is also “aimed at preventing an outflow of fleeing ISIL militants as their presence comes to an end and they start trying to scatter,” he said.

Pahon emphasized the “hold force” is meant to secure small areas where ISIL has been removed and to prevent the group’s resurgence. Pahon attempted to ease tensions with Turkey. “We are aware of the security concerns that our NATO ally Turkey has presented. We have been in regular discussions with Turkey, particularly since this issue cropped up. Our senior leaders have been talking. I am not going to get into the content of those discussions. Turkey is also a valuable member of the coalition,” he said.

Meanwhile, AA reported on Friday that Turkey has installed an electronic security system in its southernmost Hatay province on the border with Afrin. Having successfully passed the initial tests by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), the first phase of the “Kayı Border Security System” project has now been activated.

Developed by the Undersecretariat for Defence Industries, the system is being installed along a 40-km (24,8-mile) segment of the border with Afrin, and currently the initial 20-km (12,4-mile) part has been completed, a source said, adding that the project would cover the entire borderline with Syria.

Entirely Turkish-made, the system immediately alerts the command center when drones, vehicles or humans are approaching the border. The cameras automatically focus on potentially threatening objects and all videos and images recorded at the border are gathered in the center. The system is capable of immediately notifying security forces against all kinds of threats.

In case of an attack, the Stabilized Advanced Remote Weapon Platform (SARP), manufactured by Turkey’s major defense company Aselsan, immediately pinpoints the precise location of the attack. The weapon platform then automatically locks on to the target, awaiting the order to shoot.

The enhanced detection capabilities of the system also include underground sensors that can detect any object approaching the border as well as all attempts to dig underground tunnels. Turkey shares a 911-km (566-mile) border with Syria, which has been embroiled in a civil war since 2011.

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