Turkish military sources: “We are likely to kick off the operation to sweep [Kurdish] terrorists from Afrin this weekend”
Claims are circulating that Turkey is stationing ground forces at a base in northwest Syria, amid the rising possibility of battles between Turkish-supported rebels and the Kurdish militia YPG.
The claims put the Turkish forces atop Sheikh Barakat Mountain, west of the town of Darat Izza in Idlib Province (see map).
On Monday the Turkish daily Yeni Safak, a supporter of the Erdoğan Government, proclaimed, “Final Preparations for Turkey’s Afrin Operation” against the Kurdish canton in the northwest.
The site described a two-front operation in which Turkish soldiers would accompany the Free Syrian Army in an advance on the eastern flank, moving on the town of Tel Rifaat and the Menagh airbase — 15 km (9 miles) from the Kurdish center in Afrin — while FSA units would move both from the west in Azaz near the Turkish-Syrian border and from the east in the town of Mare’ in northern Aleppo Province.
Daily Sabah, also a supporter of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, follows this morning with “Turkish Military Build-up at Border Ready to Target YPG-held Afrin, Tal Rifat”.
Daily Sabah repeats the Yeni Safak description of operations and, citing a “military source”, says that Turkey “is likely to kick off the operation to sweep PYD and YPG terrorists from Afrin this weekend”.
Without providing any evidence that ground forces are already inside Syria, a Daily Sabah journalist asserts, “Ankara has already set up dozens of military bases in Syria to ensure security, including bases in al-Bab and Azaz”.
Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak told reporters on Wednesday, “In order to stabilize the region, the Afrin region needs to be cleared of terror elements and terrorists. Turkey is continuing to work with its counterparts to achieve this end, with the help of the Foreign Ministry and the National Intelligence Organization.”
Even if the claims of a Turkish garrison are not true, the reports could point to a substantial FSA offensive with the assistance of Turkish artillery strikes, armored vehicles, and special forces.
The YPG has responded with declarations of reinforcements. An officer told Kurdish outlet ARA News:
The YPG and SDF [Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces] today deployed more forces and armoured vehicles in northern Aleppo. We will respond to any Turkish attacks on Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan]-Northern Syria. The Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Islamists will be a main target for our forces in the area.
Both a pro-rebel site and a Turkish outlet say Russian forces have left the Kafr Jannah camp near Afrin, but the pro-opposition al-Dorar disputes the claim.
— Qasioun News Agency (@QASIOUN_NEWS) June 29, 2017
Tensions have risen between the Turkish-supported rebels and the Kurdish YPG as both sides push back the retreating Islamic State in northern Syria. Turkey intervened from August 2016 in Operation Euphrates Shield, helping the FSA take much of northern Aleppo Province. That advance challenges any Kurdish aspirations of linking the Afrin canton in the northwest with the expansion of their territory v. ISIS in the northeast, reaching the city of Manbij in eastern Aleppo Province.
Turkey considers the YPG and its political umbrella, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD), to be part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK. Fighting Turkish security forces for more than 30 years, the PKK is considered a “terrorist” group by the US, but Washington is a key backer of the YPG through its support of the Syrian Democratic Forces against the Islamic State.
The reports of a military buildup have been accompanied by stories of the arrest of “four PKK terrorists” who crossed from northern Syria to southeastern Turkey to “stage an assassination attempt” on a Turkish MP in the ruling Justice and Development Party.
Russia: Our Warning Prevented US Strike on Assad Base
Mirroring a US claim that its warning has deterred another chemical attack by the Assad regime, Russia says its warning blocked an American assault on a regime base.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Thursday:
We conveyed the warning to the top diplomats yesterday and the message was passed on. The Foreign Ministry issued a corresponding statement through its Information and Press Department. The US Ambassador to the United Nations [Nikki Haley] said yesterday that the US warning had worked, and I hope that Russian warning had worked (as well) and the US had not conducted a strike.
The White House said on Monday that it had intelligence of preparations at the Shayrat Airbase, from where the regime launched a deadly nerve agent attack in northwest Syria on April 4, for another operation. Defense Secretary James Mattis said yesterday that there were no indications of further preparations, indicating that the regime had been deterred by Washington’s statement.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a press conference:
I expect that this time, the United States will take into account the need to actually ensure the non-proliferation of chemical weapons and will refrain from speculating on some intelligence data, which that is secret so no one may see it, in order to provoke others and create pretexts for new attacks on the Syrian government troops fighting against terrorists.
But Ryabkov backed away from Russia’s declaration last week that it is suspending deconfliction arrangements with the US, following the American downing of a regime warplane which was attacking units of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria.
I don’t think that Russia and the US are in a state of conflict. I consider that Russia and the US are not experiencing the best times in the history of their relations, but there is a possibility to improve them.
That’s why there is the need to be more responsible, show respect to the interests of each other and be guided by a joint agenda with the focus on the war on terror.
3rd Israel Strike Within Days on Assad Regime Position in Southwest
Israel has carried out its third strike in five days on an Assad regime position in southwest Syria.
The Israel Defense Forces said they attacked the position on Wednesday after a stray mortar shell landed in an open area the Israeli-occupied northern Golan Heights, causing no casualties.
The Israeli military fired on the village of Samadanieh al Sharqiyah in Quneitra Province, near the frontline of clashes between pro-Assad forces and rebels.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was visiting Katzrin — a town in another part of the Golan Heights about 20 km (12.5 miles) from the area where rockets have landed — said:
I said here that we will not tolerate errant shooting and we will respond to all firing. During my speech, there was errant fire from the Syrian side that landed in our territory and the army has already attacked.
Whoever attacks us, we attack them. This is our policy and we will continue to implement it.
Israel launched its first retaliatory strikes last Saturday, causing several casualties among Assad regime troops, and followed with more the next day. Damascus later declared that a building used as a hospital for injured regime forces was hit, without providing any evidence to back the claim.