Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli announced on Friday that the military operation in the Kurdish-held region of Afrin in northern Syria has gotten underway.
The cross-border bombardment took place after days of threats from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to crush the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin in response to growing Kurdish strength across a wide stretch of north Syria.
“The operation has actually de facto started with cross-border shelling,” confirmed Canikli, adding that no troops had crossed into Afrin.
Reuters TV filmed Turkish artillery at the border village of Sugedigi firing on Friday morning into Afrin region, and the YPG said Turkish forces fired 70 shells at Kurdish villages between midnight and Friday morning. Shelling continued in the late afternoon, said Rojhat Roj, a YPG spokesman in Afrin.
Roj said it was the heaviest Turkish bombardment since Ankara stepped up threats to take military action against the Kurdish region.
He said that the YPG will retaliate with force against any attack against Afrin.
Canikli said Ankara was determined to destroy the Kurdish group. “All terror networks and elements in northern Syria will be eliminated. There is no other way,” he said.
A US State Department official said that the Afrin shelling undermines regional stability and would not help protect Turkey’s border security.
“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.”
The United States has instead called on Turkey to focus on the fight against ISIS and not take military action in Afrin.
Turkey has been angered by US military support for the Kurdish YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces which spearheaded the fight against ISIS in Syria, and by an announcement that the United States would stay in Syria to train about 30,000 personnel in the swathe of eastern Syria under SDF control.
Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist group and a branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party which has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey for decades, and Canikli criticized Washington for its continued emphasis on countering ISIS.
Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin stated that his country’s measures against Afrin, Manbij and Jarablus or any other region is aimed at protecting its national security, and not directed against Syria’s Kurds.
Erdogan’s aide Gülnur Aybet meanwhile said that Ankara would reject the US-backed border force if it included the YPG, saying that it would be tantamount to a “terrorist army.”
Turkey is determined to thwart the formation of any terrorist entity along its border with Syria, she stressed.
In Russia meanwhile, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on Turkish claims that the Afrin operation was coordinated with Moscow.
He instead said that inquiries on this issue should be directed to the Russian Defense Ministry.
Former Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Airborne Troops Vladimir Shamanov announced that his country will not intervene militarily in Afrin, saying: “We have a special mission in Syria that is determined by agreements signed with the Syrian regime.”