Turkey ramps up fight against Kurds in Syria
BEIRUT — Turkey escalated its offensive Thursday against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, pounding them with airstrikes and artillery, and complicating the battle against the Islamic State by Ankara and Washington, both NATO allies.
In the fight for Aleppo, meanwhile, the Syrian military used a lull in violence to urge residents and rebels to evacuate the besieged opposition-held part of the city.
The pause is part of a humanitarian cease-fire announced by Russia. Rebels have rejected the offer to evacuate, saying it wasn’t serious.
Clashes were heard at one of the safe corridors announced by the Syrian military.
“Talk of fighters or nonfighters leaving is denied and groundless,” said Ammar Sakkar, spokesman for Fastaqim, one of the largest rebel groups operating in Aleppo. “The rebels’ decision has not and will not change. It is to be steadfast.”
Eastern Aleppo, be- sieged by government troops, has been subjected to intense and relentless airstrikes by Syrian and Russian aircraft in recent weeks. Hundreds of people have been killed and neighborhoods destroyed.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said as many as 200 members of the Kurdishled forces were killed in Syria’s Aleppo province by the Turkish bombing and shelling.
A senior commander with the main Syria Kurdish militia confirmed the Turkish attack on his forces north of Aleppo but disputed the casualty toll, saying that no more than 10 fighters were killed.
Like in Iraq, where Kurdish fighters are at the forefront of the offensive to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State, Kurdish forces in Syria have been battling militants and made significant territorial gains in Aleppo province. That has dismayed Turkey, which is dealing with a homegrown Kurdish insurgency and trying to prevent an expansion of Kurdish influence in Syria.
“We will not back down,” senior Kurdish commander Mahmoud Barkhadan of the People’s Protection Units said from the region.
“We are fighting Daesh. Why are they striking at us?” he asked, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State, also called ISIS.
Barkhadan accused Turkey of aiding ISIS militants by turning the fight into a Turkish-Kurdish battle.
Turkish artillery also hit near Afrin, a Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria, he said, adding that his forces have not retreated but that Turkey’s actions allowed ISIS fighters to wage a counteroffensive.
More than 10 fighters were killed and 20 wounded in over 30 aerial attacks that began Wednesday night, he said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 14 Kurdish fighters were killed and four were missing.
The Turkish moves threaten a possible campaign against ISIS in the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa in eastern Syria, Ilham Ahmed, a senior Syrian Kurdish official, said.
Kurdish forces are the main partner in such a fight, but Ankara has said it is ready to act without Kurdish participation.
Smoke rises Thursday from an attack on a government-held area in Aleppo, Syria.