YPG fighters on duty in Rojava, northern Syria. Photo: AP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Turkish and Kurdish forces appear headed towards large scale conflict in the Kurdish canton of Afrin in northwest Syria as both sides step up rhetoric amid increased Turkish military movement in the area.
If Turkey attacks Afrin, “Turkey will be plunged into a swamp, politically and militarily – there will be an historical resistance against Turkish occupation in Afrin and Shahba regions,” Mehmud Berxwedan, commander of Kurdish YPG forces in Afrin, told Voice of America’s Kurdish radio service on Friday.
Berxwedan described Turkey as an “occupying state” in Syria and accused the neighbouring country of repeatedly violating the border, occupying parts of Afrin, and causing death and injuries in shelling of villages.
Turkey, which deployed troops
to its border with Afrin last week, claimed it is responding to Kurdish aggression. Ankara considers the YPG and the dominant Kurdish political party in northern Syria, the PYD, to be off-shoots of the banned PKK.
“Whether it is Daesh or PYD, YPG or any other organization, it does not matter to us,” Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told reporters on Thursday, according to state-run Anadolu Agency. Turkey “will never be a spectator to the acts of terrorists groups.”
Kurtulmus criticized the US for supporting the Kurdish group. The YPG is the dominant armed force fighting ISIS in Raqqa under the flag of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with coalition backing.
Berxwedan denied that the YPG had attacked Turkey from Afrin and stressed that the forces in the canton are all native to the area, “protecting their lands.”
Asked about Turkish shelling of Afrin, coalition spokesperson Col. Ryan Dillon said on Thursday that they are concerned about any factors that distract the SDF from fighting ISIS.
He declined to speculate, however, if the coalition would come to the defense of their allies against Turkey, but said, “We will continue to support our SDF partners in the fight against ISIS in Raqqa and perhaps elsewhere after that.”
The Turkish army entered northern Syria last August in its operation Euphrates Shield with the stated aim of clearing “terrorists” from its border areas, mentioning both ISIS and the YPG, PYD. Ankara wanted to halt Kurdish advances along the border that would have linked the western Afrin canton with Kobane and Cizre to the east.
Backing elements of the Free Syrian Army, Turkey took control from ISIS of a swathe of territory between the Euphrates River and Afrin. They then set their sights on the Kurds.
After clashes between Turkish and Kurdish forces near Manbij in March, the US deployed special forces to the area to “deter aggression” against them and reassure their Kurdish allies.
The YPG is now making noise about taking control over territory occupied by Turkey and its allies. Commander Sipan Hemo said his force will “liberate” a 100 kilometre-long corridor along the Turkish border between Azaz and Jarablus. He made his comments to a Kurdish newspaper, according to Reuters.
Special US presidential envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurk, spent two days this week in northern Syria meeting with SDF military personnel and civil leaders in the Raqqa area. On Friday, he arrived in Ankara “for consults with NATO ally Turkey on mutual efforts to defeat ISIS and ensure it can never return,” he tweeted.
McGurk’s visit comes the same day Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a phone call with US President Donald Trump, according to Hurriyet Daily News. Erdogan was to follow that conversation with a call to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The details of what was discussed in the phone calls were not immediately released.
The YPG has also received support from Russia.
“In our fight against terrorism, whoever stands alongside us, we will also remain true to them, the US or Russia – and we have the two countries support in both sides of the Euphrates,” said Berxwedan.
The YPG has taken their cause to the Twittersphere on Friday, calling for a “Twitterstorm at 8pm Efrin time to say no to Turkish colonial invasion” with the hashtag #TurkeyHandsOffAfrin