Updated January 20
ERBIL, Iraq – Turkish warplanes launched heavy airstrikes late Saturday on the city of Efrin in an operation dubbed ‘Operation Olive Branch’ after Russian troops withdrew and the Syrian army made major advances, taking over Abu Duhur military airfield near Idlib and raising fear among civilians in the town.
“I was talking to my father on the phone, and I could hear the sound of air strikes,” said Zerdesth, a 27-year old student from Efrin who lives in the Netherlands. “The villages near the border of Turkey were evacuated. Women, children and elderly were send away, only men remain. People are afraid.”
“The news is true, more than one hour ago, Turkish planes shelled Efrin city and injured many civilians,” People’s Protection Units (YPG) spokesperson Nouri Mahmoud told The Defense Post. “The Ashrafieh neighborhood and Rajo district, were hit by around 50 to 60 planes,” he added.
Mustafa Shan, an official in Efrin spoke to The Defense Post by phone after visiting the local hospital and said that the ‘war is getting hot.’
“The situation in Afrin is bad and the Turkish state wants to control it. The planes fire rockets, there are martyrs in hospitals and a large number of injuries,” he told The Defense Post. “The majority of them are civilians. Everyone is getting bombed. The war is hot, planes come and go and bomb us,” he added.
The Turkish military said in a statement that Operation Olive Branch was launched at 17:00 on January 20, 2018. The TSK statement said that the operation aims to “neutralize the terrorists belonging to PKK/KCK/PYD-YPG” as well as Islamic State “in the Afrin region in the north-western part of Syria in order to ensure security and stability in our borders and the region.”
There is no known ISIS presence in the area.
In a later update, Turkey’s military said 108 targets in 7 regions were hit in the first wave of strikes. The 72 participating aircraft returned to base to prepare for subsequent missions.
The statement said the operation only targets “terrorists,” their “shelters, armaments, weapons, tools and equipment” and that “attention and sensitivity” will be shown to prevent civilians from being harmed.
“Until now six civilians were injured, including two children. They are treated in the hospital,” Abdulkarim Omar, head of Foreign Relations in Jazira canton said, confirming reports of civilian casualties.
Omar later said 25 civilians had been reported injured.
— Robin (@em_bernadin) January 20, 2018
Turkey is suspected to have made a deal with Russia when Turkish government officials visited Moscow earlier this week, local Kurdish officials said.
“After the visit of the Turkish Chief of Staff to Russia, the shelling began and we expect, but we are not 100 per cent sure if there is an agreement between them, and this issue will become clear in the coming days,” Omar added.
The strikes come a week after The Defense Post reported that the U.S.-led Coalition against Islamic State planned to form a 30,000-strong Syrian Border Security Force, half of which would be comprised of veteran Syrian Democratic Forces fighters.
Earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Efrin operation would be followed by another against Manbij.
“The Afrin operation has de-facto been started on the ground,” Erdogan said. “This will be followed by Manbij,” he added, referring to another Kurdish-controlled Syrian town to the east.
He added that Turkey would “step by step” destroy a “terror corridor” that he said had been set up by the YPG.
Turkey views the predominately-Kurdish YPG, which makes up the backbone of the SDF, as and its linked PYD political party which control Efrin as extensions of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long insurgency mainly in Turkey’s majority-Kurdish southwest.
Russia withdraws troops from Efrin
“Ankara’s extremely negative reaction was prompted by Washington’s announcement of the creation of border forces in areas bordering Turkey, and other U.S. efforts to break the Syrian statehood and support armed militant groups,” Interfax reported the Russian Ministry of Defence as saying.
The Russian Ministry of Defence said in a statement that it had withdrawn the Russian Military Police in Efrin to Tel Ajar to prevent provocations and threats to the lives of Russian servicemen.
“Airspace in Afrin is under de facto Russian control. If Turkish jets are striking YPG positions, it is undoubtedly permitted by Russia,” said Ceng Sagnic, Co-editor of Turkeyscope and Coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center.
“I believe Russia’s balancing strategy will be allowing Turkey to launch an incursion and maybe capture some rural parts including Mare to pave a connection path to Idlib while prohibiting it from entering the city center of Afrin,” he said.
Urging all sides to exercise restraint, the Russian foreign ministry said it was “alarmed” by reports of the Turkish military operation, but deputy foreign minister Bogdanov said the Turkish operation will not affect the upcoming Syrian National Dialogue Congress in the Russian city of Sochi.
Top negotiators from Iran, Russia, and Turkey met in Sochi and confirmed the Russian-sponsored peace talks will be held there on January 30.
“The Russian relationship or interests as we know is to blind eyes with Turkey sometimes to negotiate over terrorist Forces in Idlib and regime also to keep its forces,” Hevi Mustafa, the co-chair of the Efrin canton told The Defense Post.
“But everyone has to know we are taking our strength from our people and we are not waiting to support us,” she said. “If they do not [give the green light], the war in the region will stop. But if they do and follow their interests, and no longer stay with us, then we get the support from our people,” she added.
Turkish air force planes is now bombing the city of Afrin, and the two districts of Shirwa, Shira, the areas of Gendarese and Rajo. pic.twitter.com/2TKE9dvHDq
— Dr Abdulkarim Omar (@abdulkarimomar1) January 20, 2018
According to Kurdish officials, Turkey is willing to give concessions to the Syrian government in Idlib, in order to attack the Kurds in Efrin.
“Turkey aims to replace Efrin by Idlib, and on this basis the Turkish minister went to Russia to complete this process and take instructions from Russia. Turkey believes in the process of replacing Efrin by Idlib, and so far the Russian troops are still in Efrin,” YPG official Nouri Mahmoud said on Friday.
“Turkey wants to gain international legitimacy to enable it to enter Efrin and has not succeeded in this so far, and that is why it launches many rumors to make itself right and can enter Efrin.”
“Some say that it is possible that there is an agreement between Russia and Turkey on Efrin, and Russia will let Turkey occupy Efrin, and the Syrian regime will get Idlib. We Kurds in Efrin do not care about such agreements. We will defend our areas and we do not care about other regions,” Cemil Suleyman, a foreign affairs official of the local administration in Efrin said.
“Our aim is that all the Syrian people – Kurds, Arabs, Ezidis, Turkmen, Syriacs – have their own rights. That’s our goal,” she told The Defense Post.
According to Nicholas Heras, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security, the fight will be bloody if Turkey really attempts to take Efrin.
“The sad reality is that due to the difficult nature of Efrin’s terrain, and the defenses laid down by the YPG and its local allies, the path of least resistance for Turkey is to bombard and bomb Afrin to oblivion. Especially if Turkey relies on the lightly armed, unprofessional Free Syrian Army. To defeat the YPG, Turkey will literally have to create a desert of rubble in Efrin,” he told The Defense Post.
Fergus Kelly contributed reporting