Turkey’s Military Clashes with Kurdish Militia in Northeast Syria

A file photo showing Turkish soldiers on their tank as they prepare for a military operation at the Syrian border in the Karkamis District of Gaziantep, Turkey, 27 August 2016. Photo: Sedat Suna/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

  • Turkey’s armed forces have clashed with the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG along the Turkish-Syrian border.
  • Number of casualties and the scope of the fighting is not fully known yet.
  • Clashes erupted a day after Turkey started air strikes against positions in Iraq and Syria of the outlawed Kurdish organization PKK, with which Turkey deems the YPG is affiliated.
  • Turkish air strikes killed over 70 militants on the first day, according to the Turkish armed forces.

Fighting between Turkish armed forces and the militia of the Syrian Kurds (YPG) has erupted in Northeast Syria, a day after Turkey began airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against positions of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a group blacklisted as a terrorist organization for using violence to fight for the independence of the Kurds living in Southeast Turkey.

Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG (“People’s Protection Units”) and its political wing, PYD (“Democratic Union Party”) as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK.

The PKK has been waging a guerilla war and committing terrorist attacks against Turkey since 1984, in a conflict which has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

In addition to Turkey, large ethnic Kurdish communities also live in Syria, Iran, and Iraq. The Kurds in Iraq enjoy an autonomy in the former of the Kurdistan Regional Government, also known as Iraqi Kurdistan, an entity the size of Scotland which might decide to seek formal independence.

Turkey’s government has had good relations with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan but not with the political and military organizations of the Kurds in Syria, which have been opposing its forces and allies in the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

The Syrian Kurdish militia YPG makes up the bulk of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but fight mostly against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The YPG has also established cooperation with Russia.

The Turkish government recently said it had completed “successfully” a major military operation in its war-torn neighbor Syria but that it would not be withdrawing its forces from there.

Heavy Clashes

Fighting between Turkish forces and the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG broke out on Wednesday along the Turkish-Syrian border, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.

“[The clashes erupted] after the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fired on an armoured vehicle belonging to Turkish forces that had crossed the Syrian-Turkish border”, the Observatory said.

Turkish forces were firing artillery at YPG positions west of Darbasiyah in Syria’s northeast Hasakeh province, and YPG was firing rockets on Turkish outposts, according to the Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman.

The shelling closed down the road between Derbassiye and Serikaniye, while clashes between the Turkish military and the Kurdish militia also broke out near the town of Afrin, Kurdish news site ARA reported.

“The Turkish army targeted the positions of the YPG in Derbassiye and our units responded to the sources of fire intensively,” said Abdulkarim Omer, head of the YPG foreign relations office at the Cezire (Hasakah) canton.

“An armed Turkish soldier was killed and three others wounded when the YPG confronted the attack by the Turkish occupation army on Derbassiye,” he added.

“The Turkish army and allied gangs shelled the town of Till Rifaat and the village of Til Cibrin in Shahba region,” the YPG said in a statement.

“The MMC [Manbij Military Council] declared its full support for YPG/YPJ forces against Turkish attacks, noting that Turkey aims to obstruct the fight against Daesh (ISIS),” the YPG added.

‘No Secret Agenda’

The Turkish Armed Forces said on Wednesday its air strikes in Iraq and Syria were continuing, and that it had hit PKK targets, killing over 70 militants.

It said it had destroyed three PKK shelters, and that it had retaliated to cross-border mortar fire from the YPG, the Hurriyet Daily News reported.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that Ankara had informed the members of the US-led anti-ISIS international coalition as well as Russia two hours before Turkish planes bombed the PKK positions in Iraq and Syria.

“Two hours before this operation, we shared information with the US and Russia that we would undertake an operation” in the region, and warned the US to withdraw its soldiers in the region to 20-30 kilometers away,” Cavusoglu told reporters in Uzbekistan on April 26.

Ankara told Washington in the “last few weeks” that it would undertake military operations, he said, without giving further detail.

“Turkey acts transparently on all issues. We have no secret agenda… We respect Syria and Iraq’s territorial integrity,” he said.

“Turkey will not let Sinjar become a PKK base, and will continue military operations there and in northern Syria “until the last terrorist is eliminated,” Turkish President Recep Erdogan told Reuters in an interview on April 25, saying there were about 2,000 PKK members in Iraq’s Sinjar region.

Erdoğan said it was a “source of sadness for us” that five or six Peshmerga fighters (i.e. Iraqi Kurdistan’s military) were killed in the attack despite the warnings.

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