ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Turkey has fired howitzers across the border into Afrin as the defence minister said a military operation on the Syrian Kurdish canton has essentially begun.
Turkey fired at least 10 rounds of artillery on Afrin, state-run Anadolu Agency reported on Friday.
Turkey's Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli emphasized that the operation will happen, but did not specify a timeline. “It could be tomorrow, it could be in the evening. What we say is that this operation will take place.”
However, with the shelling, “the operation has de facto started,” he said, according to AFP.
The Kurdish armed force YPG has vowed to defeat Turkey: “just how ISIS gangs attacked Kobane and were defeated, the same thing will happen to the invading Turkish state if it tries to attack Afrin,” they declared in a statement on Friday.
Damascus has permitted Kurdish forces to send reinforcements to its isolated Afrin canton through Aleppo province, according to media with ties to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Citing military sources, Al-Masdar News reported that YPG had sent hundreds of reinforcements over the last 48 hours.
A commander within the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) said that operations were delayed because of bad weather and anticipated they will begin Saturday morning, pending international developments, the BBC’s Riam Dalati reported.
There was rain and some snow brought cooler temperatures across much of Syria on Friday.
Local media reported at some 20 busloads of FSA fighters were brought into the area.
Conflict monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that hundreds of FSA fighters, part of Turkey’s Euphrates Shield Operation, have moved from northern Aleppo province, through Turkey, and are now on Turkey’s western border with Afrin.
The Observatory said an attack on Afrin will be conducted on “10 fronts at least,” noting a “massive” concentration of Turkish vehicles, equipment, and soldiers.
Amid the increasing threat of war, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Friday that he is worried about the safety of the civilian population in Afrin.
Guterres discussed Syria in a meeting with Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in New York on Thursday. They both stressed that “there cannot be an alternative to the search for a political and diplomatic resolution,” to current crises facing the world, including Syria, according to a statement from Lavrov’s office.
Bekir Bozdag, a Turkish deputy prime minister and government spokesperson, said after a Council of Ministers meeting on Wednesday that was headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Turkey will "continue contacts with the US and Russia" regarding Afrin operations.
Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces Gen. Hulusi Akar and Hakan Fidan, the head of Ankara's intelligence agency (MIT), went to Moscow on Thursday.
There was no immediate statement from the Russian or Turkish government following the trip.
Turkey has claimed the Russia has begun withdrawing its forces from the Afrin area in preparation for Turkey’s military operation. Anadolu Agency reported that Russian security forces in Afrin city started to leave the area on Friday.
The Observatory, however, contradicted the reports, stating “Russian forces have not withdrawn yet from Afrin area.”
Russia has not issued any statements on the matter, at time of publication.
Afrin is the westernmost canton under the control of the self-styled Kurdish enclave in northern Syria established shortly after the start of the civil war in the country in 2011.
Turkey has said they will launch an operation against the Kurdish forces in Afrin held by the People's Protections Units (YPG).
The United States has urged Ankara not to conduct such an operation.
"We would call on... the Turks to not take any actions of that sort. We want everyone there to keep their eye – I'll go back to something I said when we were talking about Iraq and the referendum – to keep their eye on the ball," said State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert on Thursday.
Russia and the United States have separately backed YPG fighters in the war against ISIS.
Turkey's Minister for Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu said they face attacks from Afrin. Turkey considers YPG the Syrian offshoot of the outlawed PKK, thus labeling it a terrorist organization.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad was quoted by state-run SANA reporters on that if Turkey begins "military acts in Afrin," Damascus will consider it as an "aggressive act" against Syria's state sovereignty.
"We warn that the Syrian air force has retaken its past capabilities and is fully prepared to destroy Turkish air targets in the sky of the Syrian Arab Republic," he said on Thursday.
Two Kurdistan Region parties, Gorran and Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal), have condemned Turkey’s military incursion into Afrin.
"The task of protecting the security and lives of our brothers and sisters in Afrin rests with the international community and coalition," read a joint statement from both parties.
They urged the Kurdistan Region parliament to take a stance on the situation.
Before the Syrian conflict, Afrin was home to more than 170,000 people.
Turkish officials in Kilis, on the border with Syria, have prevented Rudaw Media Network from covering Turkish military movements in the area.
In Rojava, the ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD) has likewise denied Rudaw entry to Afrin, upholding a pre-existing ban on Rudaw in the region.
Updated at 8:47 pm