Turkish ground forces move into Syria’s Afrin province with FSA

Turkish ground forces have started to move into Syria’s Afrin province with Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters on Sunday. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency (AA) has reported that Turkish Armed Forces backed by armored vehicles, special forces and infantry regiments advanced 5 kilometers (3 miles) inside Afrin as part of Operation Olive Branch. During the movement, no major clashes took place.

Turkish autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Sunday that the Turkish troops on the ground will chase PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing People’s Protection Units (YPG) terrorists down as they run away in Syria’s Afrin. Speaking in Bursa province, Erdoğan has also said that the operation against the YPG in northern Syria would be completed in “a very short time.” “God willing, this operation will be finished in a very short time,” Erdoğan said.

Erdoğan has also warned supporters of the pro-Kurdish opposition not to protest the military’s operation in northern Syria, saying security forces would intervene if they demonstrated. “Know that wherever you go out on the streets our security forces are on your necks,” Reuters quoted Erdoğan as saying, referring to members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), parliament’s second-largest opposition.

Meanwhile, Turkish warplanes and artillery have hit 153 Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units and outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PYD/PKK) and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Syria’s Afrin, so far, the Turkish General Staff said earlier on Sunday. “Operation Olive Branch continues as planned and the ground offensive has begun” the military said in a statement on the second day of the military operation. The military also said only terrorist targets and their positions, shelters, were being destroyed and “utmost importance” was being given to not harm any civilian.

The operation, aimed at eliminating PYD/PKK and allegedly ISIL elements from Syria’s Afrin, was launched at 5 p.m. (GMT1400) on Saturday. “It was being carried out under the framework of Turkey’s rights based on international law, UN Security Council’s decisions, self-defense rights under the UN charter and respect to Syria’s territorial integrity,” the military added.

SYRIAN KURDISH OFFICIALS: RUSSIA WANTS TO HAND OVER AFRIN TO ASSAD

However, FSA Commander Abu Maryam on Sunday gave assurances to civilians that his fighters were only “targeting PKK/PYD terrorists” without mentioning the name of ISIL. “With Allah’s help, we will enter the city center soon. We ask people to not be afraid. We only target PKK/PYD terrorist, not civilians,” Commander Abu Maryam told AA.

Pro-Kurdish Fırat news agency (ANF) has reported by allegedly basing local sources, Turkish soldiers and FSA militants clashed with YPG/YPJ militants as they tried to advance in Jindires district, south-west of Afrin. ANF claimed that another Turkish offensive near Baliya village in Bilbile district failed and YPG sources said that a number of Turkish soldiers were killed during the clashes. Clashes were also reported in Shera district of Afrin.

According to another report by ANF, two of the Turkish tanks that tried to enter Dikmetas village in Afrin’s Shera district were allegedly destroyed by YPG/YPJ militants. The agency has claimed that Turkish forces retreated after facing fierce resistance by Kurdish militants in Dikmetas and returned to their original positions. Turkish army also continues to bomb Kurdo and Baliya villages of Bilbile district.

Turkish warplanes bombed Topal Hill in Bilbile district of Afrin. YPG sources reported intense military activity by the Turkish army and FSA militants between Bilbile and Ezaz, North-east of Afrin. Turkish surveillance planes also have also reportedly seen flying above Afrin since the early hours of the day.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has reported that fighting between the two sides on the northern and western edges of Afrin, but that Turkish troops had failed to advance. Although Ankara has not released figures on the number of Turkish troops involved in the offensive, SOHR’s director Rami Abdurrahman said some 10,000 Syrian fighters have been readied.

Officials from Syrian Kurdish administration said Russia offered Kurds protection if they hand over Afrin region to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. Nobahar Mustafa and Sinam Mohammad, the representatives of Syrian Kurds in Washington D.C., were quoted by Turkish independent outlet Diken as saying that Turkey and Russia made a deal before the Afrin operation, allowing Turkish airstrikes.

Kurds rejected the offer, officials said, but the withdrawal of Russian forces right before the operation indicates a deal, they said. Syrian Kurds want to build peace with Turkey, yet their efforts were repeatedly rejected, Mustafa and Muhammad said. Only ISIL, Iran and the Assad regime benefits from Turkey’s military operation on Afrin, Kurdish officials said, adding that they expect US and Russia to negotiate a solution to the current crisis, Diken wrote.

A top Syrian Kurdish official on Sunday has also said Russian officials asked them to hand the country’s northwestern district of Afrin to the Syrian government to stop the Turkish attacks on the region. Aldar Khalil, a member of the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), an umbrella organization made up of six political organisations, including the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the leading Kurdish party in northern Syria, told reporters they will defend Afrin and will never hand it to the Syrian regime. “Russians told us we would be safe and far from the Turkish attacks if we leave Afrin for the Syrian regime, but we totally refuse that, and we will defend it,” he said.

Bahjat Abdo, a senior commander of YPG and the Head of Defense Authority in Afrin has said in an earlier interview with northern Iraq-based Kurdistan 24 news outlet that they would never allow the Syrian regime to return to Afrin. “We drove the Syrian regime out of Afrin five years ago, and it is impossible to allow them back,” he said.

Afrin has been under control the PYD/PKK since July 2012 when the Assad regime in Syria left the city to the Kurdish groups without putting up a fight. The Turkish cities of Kilis and Hatay across the Syrian border are within the firing range of the PYD/PKK group from Afrin, which sits atop a hill.

Turkish government defends the idea that the PYD/PKK depends on Afrin to connect to the Mediterranean from northwestern Syria. The armed organisation has also threatened the gains made from Operations Euphrates Shield and Idlib de-escalation zone over Afrin. A quarter of Syria land and 65 percent of Turkey-Syria border are currently under occupation of the PYD/PKK.

TURKISH PM YILDIRIM: “ANYONE WHO GIVES LOGISTICAL SUPPORT TO YPG IS OUR TARGET” 

“Turkey has begun a land operation on the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), with troops entering Syrian soil at 11:05 a.m. on Sunday,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım told a group of journalists. “Our units have entered Afrin from two branches at 11:05 a.m. with the Free Syrian Army. This means the land operation has begun,” Yıldırım said, speaking to editors-in-chief of Turkish news publications in a meeting held in İstanbul, according to a report by Hürriyet daily news.

The operation, which came hours after a major air strike on the YPG on Saturday, will consist of four phases to create a secure zone with a 30-kilometer depth, he said. The first phase, he said, would be aimed to form a secure zone on the Turkish borders between Azaz and Afrin. Following the first phase, Yıldırım said, the ‘cleaning’ would require an even more thorough work and that there was no need to rush.

People’s Protection Units is not the only group in the operation area, Yıldırım said. ISIL militants were allowed to leave Raqqa under US watch, referring to a BBC report, and that they are now stationed in Afrin, Yıldırım told journalists. “There are around 8,000 to 10,000 terrorists in Afrin,” Yıldırım added.

“The Olive Branch Operation will continue until the “terrorist elements are cleared” from the region, Yıldırım said, adding that every kind of logistical support provided to the YPG militants in the region would be a figure among “Turkey’s targets,” in response to a question over what would happen in case of US logistical support to the YPG.

“The Olive Branch Operation is for the Syrian war to end, for the peace of the local community, and for territorial integrity of Syria… The operation is in line with international law. The operation is being conducted for the reason of self-defense, as per the UN agreement in the 51st article. Also, the operation is being conducted for the fight against terrorism and territorial integrity of Syria, within the UN Security Council Resolutions 1373, 1624, 2170… We are taking great care not to hurt civilians while arsenals and shelters are destroyed,” he said.

Yıldırım has also said on Sunday that his government could no longer dismiss Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which Ankara has tried to topple for years by supporting armed opposition in the country. He revealed that his government was “in touch” with Damascus as the Turkish army continued air assaults for a second day on Syrian Kurdish-held areas. “There have many wrongdoings, much oppression and too many people were killed, but the regime is a part of the business. We cannot act as if it does not exist,” Yıldırım said, in televised remarks from İstanbul.

Yıldırım has also touched upon the rockets recently fired from Syria that hit Turkey’s southeastern provinces, especially Kilis. “In recent periods, our borders have been exposed to harassment more than 700 times. Last night six rockets were fired into Kilis. No one has lost their lives, the location of the rockets was determined and destroyed,” he said.

“Technical problems were initially experienced concerning the use of air space, as the system automatically stepped in, but the problem was solved quickly…The closing of the air space is not in question for now. Round the clock coordination continues,” he said.

PM YILDIRIM DEMANDS CENSORSHIP AND PROPAGANDA FROM GUIDED MEDIA

PM Yıldırım has also asked Turkish media to consider “national interests” of Turkey while reporting about military operation on Syrian enclave of Afrin. Yıldırım mentioned “15 principles” in a meeting with Turkish media representatives in İstanbul, neo-nationalist online news outlet Odatv reported.

Government’s ‘expectations’ from the guided Turkish media include to portray the Afrin operation as a fight against terrorism, highlight that it protects civilians from harm; Do not cover Kurdish insurgent groups’ or political movements’ critical statements or demonstrations against the operation, do not report incidents that could morally support them; Be vigilant against foreign media’s critical news about Turkey, report by taking Turkey’s national interest into account; Do not quote critical voices who could portray Turkey as an “invader” in Syria; Take updates from government spokesman and ruling party spokesman; Feature that Turkey’s domestically produced weapons are being used in the operation.

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu lent full support to the operation. “We are totally confident about our brave army and give full support to the operation. What we care about is the security of our borders. No countries would want a terrorist organization at its border.”

Turkey’s leading business association Turkish Business and Industry Association (TÜSİAD) has also voiced full support for the military operation. “Our hearts are with the Turkish Armed Forces in our rightful fight against terror elements,” association head Erol Bilecik said in a written statement on Sunday.

FRANCE CALLS UN SECURITY COUNCIL TO MEET ON AFRIN

France has called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations (UN) Security Council over Syria following the launch of Turkey’s military operation in Afrin, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sunday. “Ghouta, Idlib, Afrin, France asks for an urgent meeting of the Security Council,” Le Drian said on his Twitter account. He added that he had spoken with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Sunday morning.

Anyone who opposes the Turkish operation on Syria’s Afrin will have taken the side of terrorists, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Sunday after France’s call for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. “We hope France will support Turkey’s operation against terrorists in Syria,” the minister added. Çavuşoğlu noted that the operation will take precautions to ensure no civilian or innocent person would be harmed.

A NATO official said on Sunday that all countries reserve the right for self-protection, in response to Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch against the YPG in Afrin. The official told AA that Turkey is located in an unstable region and suffers serious damage as a result of terrorism in the region. The unnamed official noted that Turkey has informed its NATO allies regarding the operation and that Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is in close contact with Turkish officials.

On Saturday, envoys and mission chiefs of permanent members of UN Security Council, United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, were invited to the Turkish foreign ministry for a briefing on Operation Olive Branch.

The Foreign Ministry has also informed ambassadors from several countries in the region about Turkey’s ongoing Operation Olive Branch in Afrin on Sunday. The ministry reportedly invited the ambassadors of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, to be briefed by Turkish ambassador Sedat Önal about the operation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discussed the Syrian conflict in a telephone call, in particular ways to bring stability to the country’s north, the Russian foreign ministry said on Sunday. They discussed tackling the Syrian crisis under the aegis of the UN, as well as a possible agenda for Syrian talks due in the Russian Black sea resort of Sochi, it said in a statement.

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