MESOP – Turkey warns: we will treat Britons fighting with Kurds as terrorists

Josie Ensor, Beirut  – TELEGRAPH UK – 2 Sept 2016 – Turkey will treat as terrorists any Briton fighting alongside Kurdish groups in Syria, a government spokesman has warned. There are at least six British volunteers currently on the frontline in northern Syria battling Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) in support of the US-backed YPG, which Ankara considers a terrorist group. “These are terrorist groups and anyone fighting under their banner will be considered terrorists,” said Yunus Akbaba, a spokesman for the Turkish prime minister, Binali Yildirim. “It is the responsibility of the countries where they come from to prevent them from joining these groups. Turkish forces will confront them if they are fighting under the banner of terrorist groups, regardless of whether they are members of allied countries,” he told Middle East Eye.  The comments raised the prospect that a Nato member army could open fire on British citizens.

Turkish troops entered Syria last week together with allied Syrian rebels to clear both Islamic State militants and Kurdish-led forces from the border area around the town of Jarablus. 

Turkish forces have been clashing with the YPG and carrying out air strikes on Kurdish-held towns since it began its unprecedented offensive.It is thought Turkish artillery fire over the weekend hit close to the British volunteers’ position 30 miles from Raqqa, the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate. “Whilst their battalion is engaged in frontline operations they are currently all well,” a spokesman for the group of British volunteers, fighting under the International Freedom Battalion (IFB) banner, told the Telegraph. There are as many as 100 American, Canadian, German, French and Swedish volunteers operating in some capacity with the group. Although the legal status of volunteering is unclear, the fighters answered a call put out by the IFB last year, and has drawn comparisons to the Brigadas Internacionales of 1930s Spain.

One British volunteer, who uses the pseudonym Macer Gifford, said he hoped the UK government took the “threats” seriously. “Many are former servicemen that have distinguished themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others are leftist and humanitarians. We aren’t terrorists by any definition of the word,” he told the Telegraph.“If one of them were to be killed by Turkey then you would see a lot of public anger.”

As well as UK volunteers there are also several dozen British special forces assisting the YPG on the ground that could be at risk from rogue Turkish fire. The already chaotic multi-sided war was complicated by Turkey’s operation in the north of the country, a dramatic escalation in its role in the five-year conflict. Ankara have been accused of concentrating their efforts on pushing back Kurdish forces rather than on defeating Isil –  a major concern for the US as it sees Syria’s Kurds as the best fighting force against the jihadists. Washington has proposed a ceasefire in the hope of averting an escalation between its two allies.  While the US and Turkey had been planning Operation Euphrates Shield for months, the Americans were apparently caught off guard by Turkey’s timing. Ankara pulled the trigger on the mission unilaterally without giving officials in Washington advance warning, according to US officials quoted in the Wall Street Journal.The US and UK would likely not have had time to move their special forces out of harm’s way.