Turkey ramps up fight against Kurdish fighters
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 group 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.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said as many as 200 members of the Kurdish-led 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 group, Kurdish forces in Syria also have been battling IS 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 told The Associated Press by telephone from the region.
“We are fighting Daesh. Why are they striking at us?” he asked, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Barkhadan accused Turkey of aiding IS 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 IS 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.
Anadolu, quoting military officials, reported the raids were carried out late Wednesday night on 18 targets in the Maarraat Umm Hawsh region in northern Syria. Between 160 and 200 militia fighters were killed, it said. The targets struck areas that Syrian Kurdish forces recently took over as they pressed a campaign to drive IS militants from areas north of Aleppo.
The Syrian Kurdish forces have been a source of tension between Turkey and the United States. The U.S. considers the militia group — the People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG — to be the most effective force against the IS group in Syria. Turkey calls it an extension of its own outlawed Kurdish militants who have carried out deadly attacks in Turkey and considers it a terrorist organization.
A U.S. defense official in Washington said the Syrian Kurdish fighters targeted by Turkish airstrikes Wednesday are not among the Kurdish groups that U.S. forces are advising and assisting, so there were no U.S. troops with those Kurds when they came under attack.