Turkish officials said their offensive on the Kurdish Afrin canton in northwest Syria has begun, as the Kurdish militia YPG reported more than 70 artillery shells were fired within several hours on Friday.
Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli announced in a TV interview:
The operation has actually started de facto with cross-border shelling.
When I say “de facto”, I don’t want it to be misunderstood. It has begun. All terror networks and elements in northern Syria will be eliminated. There is no other way.
Canikli said the main body of Turkish forces for an offensive, including armored vehicles, has been moved to the border. Analysts said that, given the hilly and mountainous area of Afrin, an artillery bombardment for days was likely before any ground assault.
THe Defense Minister that Russian military personnel have begun withdrawal from Afrin. Turkey’s State Anadolu Agency reported the pullback of Russian military police to the regime-held villages of Nubl and al-Zahra.
Turkey’s military head Gen. Hulusi Akar and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan met Russian officials in Moscow on Thursday to review the forthcoming offensive. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Turkey also discussed its aerial operations with Russia and Iran.
Turkish media, citing “sources from the ground”, said Free Syrian Army rebels with heavy weapons have deployed in the Azaz region along the border with Afrin, setting up checkpoints on the Afrin highway.
The Assad regime has threatened to “confront any Turkish aggression or military action…with appropriate response”, but made no apparent move on Friday.
Kurdish forces, backed by the US, have taken much of northern and eastern Syria from the Islamic State since autumn 2015. The advance by the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces has established a de facto autonomous Kurdish area, opposed by almost every other party in the conflict as a step towards a “federal” Syria. However, the Afrin canton in the northwest is isolated from the Cezire and Kobani cantons where the SDF has made its gains.
Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdistan Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its YPG militia to be part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK, which has fought Turkish security forces for more than 30 years.