A Turkish tank on the outskirts of Jandaris town, southwestern Afrin, on Wednesday. Photo: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Turkey will begin installing domestically-made protection systems on its tanks in Afrin, to shield them from missiles and rocket fire, the defence minister stated on Wednesday as a conflict monitor noted an “escalated” pace of operations in the Syrian Kurdish enclave.
“We will begin to install PULAT system to our tanks participating in Afrin operation by the end of this month or beginning of April,” Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli told Anadolu Agency in an interview.
The system, with 360 degrees of range, detects and intercepts approaching anti-tank missiles, Anadolu reported.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) claimed on Wednesday that they have destroyed 96 armoured vehicles, including tanks, belonging to Turkey and their Syrian allies and have damaged another 32 in operations in Afrin since January 20. They have also reported shooting down two helicopters and damaging a third.
Turkey launched its Operation Olive Branch against the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria on January 20 with the stated aim of clearing “terrorists” from its borders. Ankara alleges the Kurdish armed forces, YPG and YPJ, and the ruling PYD are branches of the PKK, a named terror organization. The Kurdish groups deny the charge.
Turkey ‘targets’ communication towers
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the “continuous flight of Turkish warplanes over Afrin area” on Wednesday, noting violent clashes in Shera district, northeastern Afrin, and on the outskirts of Jandaris town in the southwest.
According to the SDF, so far in operations they have lost 283 fighters among their own ranks and claimed to have killed 1,588 members of the Turkish armed forces and their allied Syrian militias.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed their forces have “neutralized” 2,960 “terrorists” in operations in Afrin to date. Turkey uses the term “neutralized” to refer to those removed from the battlefield, whether they were killed or injured.
Turkey has targeted communication towers in the past 24 hours, “which resulted in interruption of the communication networks and the internet almost completely,” the UK-based conflict monitor stated on Wednesday.
As Turkey advances from the borders, much of the civilian population, numbering some 323,000 according to UN figures, has been gathering in central Afrin where humanitarian conditions are deteriorating and medical supplies and food are in short supply.
The SDF reported 165 civilian deaths due to Turkish airstrikes and artillery shelling. Another 650 civilians have been injured.
The Observatory has documented 185 civilian deaths, 69 of whom were killed after the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a 30-day humanitarian ceasefire that council members insist also applies to Afrin.
Turkey has denied harming civilians during its military offensive and insists that the ceasefire does not apply to Afrin.
The Kurdish forces have stated their acceptance of the truce, but maintain the right to self-defence.
Turkey wants US to stop SDF redeployment
Asked about Turkey’s intent to take Afrin city, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the United States has “real concerns about that because of an escalation of violence,” explaining that Washington has been calling for a de-escalation of violence since Turkey began its operation.
“The more that we would see Turkish forces enter into Syria proper, deeper into Syria, the more that it stands to create a potential humanitarian crisis,” she said in a press briefing on Tuesday.
She added that the situation in Afrin “underscores” the importance of a nation-wide ceasefire.
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian explained on Tuesday that French officials have told Turkey to “put an end
” to its offensive in Afrin.
Defence Minister Canikli, who attended a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels last month, rebuffed international opposition to its offensive, telling Anadolu that he “talked to most of my counterparts and there was no criticism for Afrin operation.”
Turkey is upset about a shift in US-backed SDF fighters from the war against ISIS in eastern Syria to join the defence of Afrin.
“The US is expected to step in to stop YPG/PYD forces shifting – under US control – from Manbij to Afrin,” Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said on Wednesday.
“This is our most natural right. Whether they do it or not is a separate question but we have taken all the necessary measures on the ground,” he said.
The United States has not immediately responded.
Arab forces who have families among the IDPs sheltering in Afrin announced on Tuesday that they were redeploying
some 1,700 troops from Deir ez-Zor to Afrin.
State Department spokesperson Nauert said the United States was concerned by the move. “We would like to see the focus stay on the fight against ISIS,” she said.