Turkey bombs Syrian Kurdish militia allied to US-backed forces
Displaying the incredible complexity of the war in Syria, Turkey hit Kurdish rebels in northern Syria, who are reportedly aligned with the US; the Kurdish forces that were hit had previously captured villages outside the city of Aleppo from ISIS.
Turkish air strikes pounded a group of Kurdish fighters allied to a US-backed militia in northern Syria overnight, highlighting the conflicting agendas of NATO members Ankara and Washington in an increasingly complex battlefield.
According to a statememnt made by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Wednesday, the jets targeted positions of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in three villages, northeast of the city of Aleppo, that the SDF had captured from ISIS.
The Turkish military confirmed its warplanes had carried out 26 strikes on areas recently taken by the Kurdish YPG militia, the strongest force in the SDF, and that it had killed between 160 and 200 combatants.
The British-based Observatory monitoring group reported a much lower toll of 11 dead and dozens wounded. Officials of the Kurdish-led administration that controls much of northeastern Syria said dozens had been killed.
A senior US defense official said the groups struck by Turkish jets were not themselves US-backed but were "close to and friendly with" the fighters Washington is working with.
Asked in the light of the air strikes whether he was concerned the US alliance with Turkey was unravelling, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told a news conference at the Pentagon:
"With respect to Turkey, our partnership is very strong in the counter-ISIL campaign." ISIL is another acronym for ISIS, also called the Islamic State. "We're working with the Turks now very successfully to help them secure their border area," added Carter, who was due to visit Turkey on Friday.
The United States has backed the Kurdish-led forces in their fight against ISIS, infuriating Ankara, which sees the YPG as an extension of Kurdish PKK militants who have waged a three-decade insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
Turkey fears the YPG will try to connect three de facto autonomous Kurdish cantons that have emerged during the five-year war to create a Kurdish-run enclave in northern Syria, stoking the separatist ambitions of Kurds on its own soil.
Five shells fired from the YPG-controlled Afrin region of Syria, west of where the air strikes hit, landed in empty land in Turkey's Hatay province on Thursday, triggering retaliatory howitzer fire from Turkey, the Turkish military said.
The Turkish army bombarded villages near Afrin overnight, the pro-Kurdish Anha news agency said. Footage purportedly showed smoke billowing out from the Syrian side of the border. Anha said there were casualties from the shelling by what it described as at least 44 howitzers.
The Turkish army also said 21 PKK militants had been killed in operations in Hakkari province in Turkey's southeast, where violence has flared since the PKK abandoned a ceasefire in 2015.
'We will not wait'The air strikes, the heaviest against the YPG since Turkey launched a military incursion into Syria two months ago, came hours after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned that Ankara could act alone in rooting out its enemies abroad.
"From now on we will not wait for problems to come knocking on our door, we will not wait until the blade is against our bone and skin, we will not wait for terrorist organisations to come and attack us," Erdoğan said in a speech on Wednesday.
The Observatory named the bombed villages as al-Hasiya, Um al-Qura and Um Hosh. They lie around 30 km (19 miles) west of al-Bab, the last big town held by ISIS militants in northwest Syria after a series of battlefield reverses.
Turkey, a major backer of the insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad, entered the Syrian conflict in August, using its armour and air power to help Free Syrian Army rebel groups take territory near the border held by ISIS.
But its intervention also aimed to prevent the SDF from gaining more ground. The SDF has been moving eastwards towards al-Bab, which Turkish-backed rebel forces also want to capture from ISIS.
The Turkish military said its air strikes had destroyed nine buildings, one armoured vehicle and four other vehicles that belonged to the YPG.