The Turkish army on Saturday launched new strikes against Kurdish militia in northern Syria as preparations intensified for a cross-border ground operation that has alarmed the United States.
Turkey has in recent days sent dozens of military vehicles and hundreds of troops to the border area amid repeated threats from top officials that an operation could be launched at any moment.
The army said it hit in ‘legitimate self defence’ camps and refuges used by the People's Protection Units (YPG) militia in response to fire coming from the Afrin region controlled by the militia group, which Turkey deems to be a terror organisation.
Similar strikes had also taken place on Friday, it confirmed.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened over the last days to launch a ground operation, also including pro-Ankara Syrian rebels, to oust the YPG from Afrin and the area.
Turkey accuses the YPG of being the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged a rebellion in the Turkish southeast for more than three decades and is regarded as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.
But the YPG has been the key ally of Turkey's fellow NATO member the United States in the fight against Islamic State jihadists, playing a key role in pushing the extremists out of their Syrian strongholds.
Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli said Friday that the operation had ‘de-facto begun’ because of the shelling but confirmed that Turkish troops had not yet crossed over into Syria.
Asked about the timing of a ground incursion, Canikli said: ‘It could be tomorrow, it could be in the evening. What we say is that this operation will take place.’
- 'Needs Moscow's blessing' -
AFP correspondents in the area around the Turkish border town of Reyhanli in Hatay province saw several more Turkish military vehicles heading south to the border.
Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad warned on Thursday that the Syrian air force could destroy any Turkish warplanes used in a threatened assault on the war-torn country.
Analysts say that crucial for any major ground operation will be approval from Moscow which has a military presence in the area and a cordial relationship with the YPG.
With conspicuous timing, Turkey's army chief General Hulusi Akar and spy chief Hakan Fidan were in Moscow on Thursday for talks with Russian counterparts on Syria.
‘A full Turkish air and ground offensive will not take place without Moscow's blessing,’ said Anthony Skinner, Director MENA at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
He added a full Turkish campaign is ‘not inevitable’, despite the Turkish shelling and deployments to the border area.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency reported Friday afternoon that Russian military personnel in the Afrin area were withdrawing from their positions but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later issued a strong denial.
- 'Won't serve regional stability' -
Meanwhile the Turkish threats of an intervention have also raised eyebrows in Washington, which has backed the YPG as it dislodged IS and gained control of the swathe of northern Syria up to the Iraqi border.
The YPG-held enclave of Afrin marks the westernmost extent of its control and Turkey wants to make sure it is kept well to the east of the Euphrates River.
‘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,’ a senior US State Department official said on Friday.
Skinner said a Turkish operation would be a ‘serious blow’ for the US-led coalition in Syria which still depended heavily on the YPG to stabilise the area after the ousting of IS from major towns.
Erdogan had reacted furiously this week to an announcement of plans to create a US-backed 30,000-strong border security force in northern Syria composed partly of YPG fighters, describing it as an ‘army of terror’.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later said the ‘entire situation has been mis-portrayed, mis-described’, admitting ‘we owe them (Turkey) an explanation.