Turkey could use ground forces in Syria 'in days'

Erdogan retaliating against Kurdish militias blamed for terrorist attack in Istanbul

The 'Free Woman' square in the Kurdish-majority city of Kobane, northern Syria. AFP
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Turkish troops could mount a ground invasion of Kurdish-administered parts of northern Syria within days, officials said on Monday.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned on several occasions this year that a new offensive could be forthcoming, but despite a massive aerial attack beginning on November 20, a ground invasion has yet to happen.

Reuters spoke to a number of Turkish government officials, who said a decision could be imminent on whether to move forces deeper into Syria. Some districts are already controlled by Turkish troops and allied Islamist militias.

“The Turkish Armed Forces need just a few days to become almost fully ready,” one Turkish official said. “It depends only on the President giving the word.”

Turkish warplanes and drones again bombed Kurdish positions overnight in northern Syria, striking a Kurdish militia group in Aleppo governorate and killing Kurdish separatists as well as an unconfirmed number of Syrian soldiers.

Reports varied, but according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, five Syrian soldiers were killed overnight. Other reports suggested at least one Syrian soldier had been killed

Turkish state media said on Monday that 13 members of the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK — one of the main groups targeted in the offensive — have been killed since Sunday morning.

The Syrian government has yet to comment, although the state-linked Sana news agency characterised the attacks as “Turkish aggression”.

Since Turkish attacks began on November 20, nearly 70 people have died in northern Syria, SOHR said.

Mr Erdogan promised that ground forces would be deployed after a November 13 bombing in Istanbul killed six, including two children.

Mr Erdogan blamed the attack on Kurdish militias in Syria, including the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, in addition to the separatist PKK, which operates mainly in Turkey and northern Iraq.

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Both groups denied carrying out the Istanbul bombing, but Turkey has launched its fourth large-scale military operation to punish Kurdish militias in Syria, who rose to prominence by winning a number of victories against ISIS between 2014 and 2019, gaining territory in the process.

The SDF now control swathes of eastern and north-eastern Syria, but Turkish-backed Islamist militias and ground forces have sought to create a buffer zone along the border, denying Kurdish groups a “border sanctuary” by controlling the districts of Aleppo, Raqqa and Hasakah.

Amid sporadic Turkish offensives, the SDF has sought to co-ordinate more closely with the government of Bashar Al Assad, having warned the US that they would have little choice in the event of a Turkish invasion.

It's unclear whether the Syrian soldiers killed on Sunday night were co-located with the SDF, but the two sides have co-ordinated in the past, working together against Al Qaeda-linked rebel groups in Aleppo in 2016.

In June, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi told Reuters that his forces would be willing to work with the Syrian army to fend off a Turkish offensive, saying that Damascus could “defend Syrian territory using air defence systems against Turkish planes”.

Last week, the Syrian government condemned a Turkish air strike it said had killed an undisclosed number of Syrian troops.

Mr Al Assad firmly opposes any Turkish or US presence on Syrian soil, including around 900 US advisers working with the Kurds in eastern Syria.

But neither Mr Al Assad — whose forces are weakened by over a decade of war — nor the SDF, which has no air force, stand much chance of fending off a major Turkish assault, backed by the third largest air force in Europe, after Russia and France.

Turkey is capable of launching scores of air strikes in a single wave, striking nearly 100 targets in the first weekend of bombing.

Protesters in the Kurdish-administered Syrian city of Qamishli also chanted in favour of the resistance in “Rojava” — the name Kurds in Syria given to the area they administer.

“The message that we want to convey to the world is that we are victims of eradication,” said Salah el-Dine Hamou, 55.

“How long will we continue to die while other countries watch?”

Some protesters on Sunday carried Kurdish flags alongside photos of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan — jailed in Turkey since 1999 — and shouted slogans against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Updated: November 28, 2022, 1:25 PM
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