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SDF warns of 'fierce' conflict with Turkey in north Syria

Kurdish-led SDF says it has decided to confront Turkish forces and their allies near Afrin enclave after three days of cross-border clashes
SDF troops in Manbij, northern Syria (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Syrian Kurd leaders have warned of "open, fierce confrontation" with Turkish forces in northern Syria, after a third day of cross-border skirmishes and artillery attacks.

Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus, said Turkey would retaliate against any cross-border attacks from the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria, after shelling from the Kurdish enclave of Afrin into Turkey.

Any harassing fire... will get a response

- Numan Kurtulmus, Turkish deputy prime minister

"Once again I am expressing very clearly that Turkey’s sensibilities on the PYD/YPG topic have to be taken into consideration," said Kurtulmus.

"Any harassing fire from this organisation towards Turkey from the Afrin region will get a response within the rules of engagement framework." 

Meanwhile, Naser Haj Mansour, an adviser to the Syrian Democratic Forces – a US-backed umbrella group mostly comprised of YPG fighters – on Thursday said the SDF had decided to confront Turkish forces and warned of a "big possibility of open, fierce confrontation".

There are no verified reports of casualties suffered by either side during these past three days of cross-border exchanges. Heavy fighting has also been reported between Turkish-backed rebels and YPG forces in the Afrin area.  

Military buildup

Turkey has been moving troops and hardware for the last fortnight to its border with the Afrin region.

Turkish leaders including the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been issuing strongly worded statements in recent days saying Ankara will never allow the formation of a Kurdish state in the north of Syria.

Speculation is also mounting in Turkish pro-government media about the possibility of a land incursion into Afrin with the goal of preventing a PYD/YPG corridor that would extend the length of Turkey’s border with Syria.

Turkish officials have not ruled out such an option.   

The SDF adviser also warned of the potential damage to the US-backed mission to clear the Islamic State group stronghold of Raqqa as SDF fighters would have to be diverted to Afrin to tackle Turkish and Turkish-backed rebel forces.

Splits over SDF support

A deep rift has developed among Nato allies Turkey and the United States over the latter’s support for the SDF and especially its decision to arm the group.

Ankara says the YPG is the military wing of the PYD, which it considers as the Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey has been engaged in a three-decade-long conflict with the PKK and it is listed as a terrorist outfit by both Ankara and Washington.

The Turkish government had high hopes that Donald Trump would change course and seek to align its Syria policy more in line with that of Turkey.

However, the US president not only continued with existing US policy on Syria but also announced the arming of the YPG days before Erdogan travelled to the White House in May.

On Thursday, Kurtulmus repeated the Turkish government’s criticism of the US administration and called the arming of the YPG a result of US "indecision".

US officials will eventually understand that they are on the wrong path

- Numan Kurtulmus

"The United States should stop this. We do not approve of weapons support. This is not a matter of necessity, it is a result of US indecision. US officials will eventually understand that they are on the wrong path," said Kurtulmus.

Kurtulmus’ remarks were in response to US Secretary of Defence James Mattis who told his Turkish counterpart Fikri Isik that US support for the SDF was an "interim situation triggered by necessity not preference".

The US administration has been trying to soothe Turkish concerns over the last few weeks and is believed to have provided Ankara with details of weapons provided to the SDF. The US has promised to take back all weapons after IS is defeated.

Last August, Turkey launched a military incursion into northern Syria to clear parts of its border of what it called threats posed by various terrorist groups operating there including IS and the YPG.

Turkish officials hailed the nearly seven-month campaign as a success after Turkish-backed Syrian rebels aided by the Turkish military took control of a stretch of territory extending to the town of al-Bab.

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