Turkish military forces started an offensive today against the Afrin canton in northern Syria. Afrin is currently under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, known as SDF, led by the People's Protection Units YPG, which the Turkish government considers the Syrian branch of the outlawed insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party PKK.
This year had already seen attacks by Turkish forces on Afrin, coming from Turkish posts in the Idlib province and across the border from Turkey, but recent declarations by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and high-level officials warned of a full-scale intervention soon.
“Don’t ever doubt it. One night we may arrive suddenly. If terrorists in Afrin don't surrender, then we will raze the place on their heads. They will see what we can do before the week is over,” Erdoğan is quoted as saying last Saturday by the Middle East news site Al-Monitor.
While the Turkish government considers the YPG a terrorist organization and calls its territory in northern Syria a “terror corridor,” the group has been the U.S.'s most important strategic ally in the fight against the Islamic State group, even leading the offensive against them in their self-declared capital Raqqa. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the U.S., as well as the European Union.
The situation regarding the YPG and its territory have put relations between the U.S. and Turkey, both NATO members, at stake.
The YPG and the rest of the SDF, composed of Arab, Syriac and other ethnic minorities militias, have received military aid from the U.S. in their offensive against the Islamic State group, including training assistance, weapons and strategic airstrikes.
However, the U.S. does not consider the canton of Afrin as vital to their operations against the extremist group anymore.
Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Cani said Friday that the military campaing had “de facto started” with shelling coming from their part at Kurdish targets in Afrin, but said soldiers had not yet been deployed into the territory. Turkish military units have been seen lining up at the border with Syria since Monday.
Later in the day Turkish artillery shell fire and missiles aiming the Afrin southern towns of Iska, Shader, and Jamah, as well as Qere Baba, Sorke and Bilika were reported.
Analysts expect Turkish airforce to pave the way in one or two weeks for ground units along with their ally the Free Syrian Army. The town of Manbij, in the eastern Kurdish held area, has also been pointed out as a target.
Rojhat Roj, YPG's spokesperson in Afrin, said they haven't had any casualties yet, just material damage, and warned they wouldn't surrender against the Turkish offensive. Meanwhile, protests erupted against the Turkish aggression in Afrin and other Kurdish areas of northern Syria.
Erdoğan and other Turkish authorities have announced their intentions to neutralize YGP forces and hinder their control of the Syrian border with Turkey since more than a year ago. Recent comments bash the U.S. for their intentions of traning a special border patrol, consisting of SDF's veterans and others from local communities and different ethnic backgrounds.
On Wednesday an imminent military operation was announced if the U.S. didn't back off from their plans to train the force. The U.S. then tried to calm down the situation, saying their declarations had been missunderstood and that they had no interest or operations undergoing in Afrin.
However, the situation in Manbij is different. The town is considered strategic in the fight against the Islamic State group and is part of the Kurdish held area. According to CNN Pentagon correspondant Barbara Starr, U.S. forces have been attacked by Turkish-backed rebels in Manbij and they occasionally return fire. This could cause a larger scale diplomatic conflict between the two NATO members, especially if Turkish intentions on Manbij grow.
This tense situation comes during a U.S. government "shutdown", as the Congress can't agree on a year's budget.
On their part, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad stated that the Syrian government would consider any Turkish aggression in the Afrin area as an act of war, and added that "The Syrian air defenses have restored their full force and they are ready to destroy Turkish aviation targets in Syrian Arab Republic skies.”
As the so-called Syrian revolution started in 2012, Kurdish political parties and milities held control of great parts in northern Syria and declared their autonomy from the central government. They have played a key-role in defeating and gaining territory from the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate in their areas.
The SDF controls most of northern Syria now, but the Afrin and Kobane districts controlled by them are divided by a Turkish-backed rebel-held area gain as part of their “Operation Euphrates Shield.”