Turkey in deadly Kurdish militia clashes as US sounds alarm

A convoy of Turkish Army armoured personnel carriers led by a tank are driven toward the border with Syria, in the outskirts of Hassa, Turkey, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. (AP)
Updated 23 January 2018
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Turkey in deadly Kurdish militia clashes as US sounds alarm

HASSA,Turkey: The Turkish army on Tuesday clashed with Kurdish militia in Syria in an operation that has already left two of its soldiers dead, as the United States voiced alarm the offensive could endanger attempts to end the Syrian civil war.
Speaking at the funeral of the first of two Turkish soldiers to be killed so far in the four day cross-border campaign, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that Ankara would emerge victorious.
Turkey on Saturday launched operation "Olive Branch" aimed at rooting out the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia, which Ankara sees as a terror group, from its Afrin enclave in northern Syria.
The campaign has caused ripples of concern among Turkey's NATO allies, especially the United States which is still working closely with the YPG to defeat Daesh militants in Syria.
In his strongest comments yet on the offensive, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called for Turkey to show "restraint" and warned it could harm the fight against the rebel group.
He warned the offensive "disrupts what was a relatively stable area in Syria and distracts from the international effort to defeat" Daesh, on a visit to Indonesia.
Turkish artillery on Tuesday pounded targets of the YPG inside Syria, the state-run Anadolu news agency said.
Meanwhile, Turkish drones were also carrying out attacks, state television said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said fighting was "very violent" northeast, northwest and southwest of Afrin.
The Observatory said the offensive took control of two villages so far.
As well as the artillery and air strikes, Turkish ground troops and Ankara-backed Syrian rebels have punched over the border several kilometres (miles) into Syrian territory, taking several villages, according to state media.
After intense exchanges, Turkey's forces took control of the hill of Barsaya, a key strategic point in the Afrin region.
The Observatory said 43 Ankara-backed rebels and 38 Kurdish fighters had been killed in the fighting so far. It has also said 28 civilians have been killed on the Syrian side but this is vehemently rejected by Turkey which says it is only targeting militants.
Sergeant Musa Ozalkan, 30, the first Turkish military fatality of the operation, was laid to rest with full honours in a ceremony in Ankara attended by the Turkish leadership.
"We will win and reach victory in this operation together with our people, together with Free Syrian Army," Erdogan assured mourners, referring to the Ankara-backed rebels.
"We have full confidence," he added.
A second Turkish soldier was killed in Syria Tuesday in clashes with the YPG, the military said in a statement. He was named as First Lieutenant Oguz Kaan Usta.
The campaign -- which Erdogan has made clear has no fixed timetable -- is fraught with risks for Turkey.
Two civilians have been killed inside Turkey in border towns in the last two days by rocket fire from Syria blamed on the YPG.
"This operation will continue until the last terrorist is eliminated," Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said.
The leaders of the YPG-controlled enclave meanwhile announced a "general mobilisation", calling up civilians to defend Afrin against Turkish attack.
The offensive against the YPG is also fraught with diplomatic sensitivities with Western capitals particularly concerned that it will take the focus away from eliminating Daesh.
France and the European Union have made similar comments to those made by Mattis.
But Ankara has expressed impatience with such sentiments, arguing that the YPG is the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which has waged a bloody three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state.
Critical is the opinion of Russia, which has a military presence in the area and a cordial relationship with the YPG but is also working with Turkey to bring an end to the seven-year Syrian civil war.
Erdogan said Monday that the offensive had been agreed with Russia but this has not been confirmed by Moscow.
However many analysts argue that Turkey would never have gone ahead with the offensive without the Kremlin's blessing.
Turkey's previous incursion into Syria was the Euphrates Shield campaign in August 2016-March 2017, targeting both the YPG and Daesh in an area east of Afrin.
The Turkish security forces have meanwhile imposed a clampdown against anyone suspected of disseminating "terror propaganda" against the operation on social media.
Ninety-one people were detained in 13 provinces in Turkey, state media reported on Tuesday, after 24 people had been detained in other cities on Monday.


Russia says drone attacks on its Syria base have increased

Updated 28 min 49 sec ago
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Russia says drone attacks on its Syria base have increased

  • Idlib has become the main base for President Bashar Assad’s foes, who moved there after being forced out from other areas across Syria
  • A recent UN report warned that Daesh, which once boasted of commanding a caliphate stretching across northern Syria and Iraq

DAMASCUS: Russian air defense assets in Syria have downed 45 drones targeting their main base in the country, its military said, after an attack by Daesh on a Syrian army base a day earlier killed seven troops.

The Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said that five of them were shot down in the last three days near the Hemeimeem air base. The base in the province of Latakia serves as the main hub for Russian operations in Syria.

Konashenkov said that while the drones appear primitive, they use sophisticated technologies and have a range of up to 100 km. 

He charged that the militants would not have been able to assemble the drones without outside help, but didn’t specify who might have assisted them.

The Russian general noted that the number of drone attacks have increased recently, adding that all of them were launched by militants based in the northern province of Idlib.

Idlib has become the main base for President Bashar Assad’s foes, who moved there after being forced out from other areas across Syria as part of surrender deals often negotiated with the Russians on behalf of the Syrian regime. With Russia’s support, Assad’s forces have regained control over key cities, like Aleppo, Homs and Daraa, the southern city where the uprising against the government began in March 2011. 

The authorities also have restored control over key highways, allowing safe travel all the way form the Jordanian border in the south to the central province of Hama.

In Homs, regional Gov. Talal Barazi told international reporters during a trip organized by the Russian Defense Ministry that a key bridge on a highway linking the Homs and Hama provinces that was destroyed in 2012 has been restored.

Barazi said that later this year his administration plans to start restoring the old part of Homs that was ravaged by fierce fighting in 2014.

He said that about 650 fighters who had left the province and moved to Idlib had come back to Homs and agreed to lay down their arms.

Barazi said that the historic city of Palmyra, home to one of the Middle East’s most spectacular archaeological sites, could be open for tourist visits by next summer. 

Many of the city’s archaeological treasures were badly damaged by Daesh in 2015. Palmyra is a world heritage site protected by the UN’s cultural agency.

In Aleppo, Hazem Ajan, the director of the city’s industrial cluster, said that about 500 companies have resumed operations in the area since the government reclaimed control in 2016.

Meanwhile, in eastern Syria, at least seven soldiers were killed with Daesh attacked an army position near the city of Deir Ezzor, a monitoring group said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack on Wednesday near the Taim oil field was the militants’ closest approach to the Deir Ezzor air base since the government recaptured it from the group last year.

Mohammed Hassan, a media coordinator for the activist-run Deir Ezzor 24, said at least 12 soldiers and five IS militants were killed in the clashes.

A recent UN report warned that Daesh, which once boasted of commanding a caliphate stretching across northern Syria and Iraq, is adopting a guerrilla profile.

The group may still have up to 30,000 members distributed between Syria and Iraq, according to the UN report.

Also on Thursday, Assad and his wife Asma visited one of the tunnels once used by fighters outside Damascus to move vehicles, weapons, and fighters while they were under siege, the president’s office said. Regime forces have uncovered a network of tunnels underneath the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital since they seized the area from opposition forces in a fierce campaign earlier this year.

The tunnel visited by the Assads was decorated with reliefs sculpted by a team of artists supervised by the government showing soldiers fighting and triumphing over their opponents.