Turkey’s prime minister Binali Yildirim said on Saturday that a Turkish ground offensive in Efrin, Syria was likely to begin on Sunday, January 21, Turkish media reported.
“As of tomorrow, depending on developments, our ground elements will carry out the necessary activities,” Yildirim said, adding that artillery would continue to shell the Kurd-controlled region, the pro-government Daily Sabah reported.
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Turkish tanks were later seen in Syria’s Azaz, south of the border crossing, CNN Turk reported.
Hurriyet also said that its reporters in the area reported having seen Turkish tanks deploying to Hassa district in Turkey’s Hatay province, west of Efrin.
Al Jazeera reported on Saturday that as many as 15,000 Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters have been mobilized to the east of Efrin in preparation for the operation.
Operation Olive Branch begins with airstrikes
Earlier on Saturday, Turkey launched ‘Operation Olive Branch’ with airstrikes against Efrin in Syria after Russia withdrew troops and military police from the area.
Turkey views the predominantly Kurdish YPG and its linked PYD political party which together 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. The YPG makes up the backbone of the U.S.-led Coalition backed SDF.
Operation Olive Branch 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,” the Turkish military said in a statement.
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.
“Every kind of attention and sensitivity will be shown so that civilians and innocent people will not be harmed,” Turkey’s Chief of General Staff General Hulusi Akar said in a video released by the military, Anadolu reported.
Abdulkarim Omar, head of Foreign Relations in Jazira canton tweeted that six civilians had so far been killed. According to a PYD tweet, the YPG confirmed that three fighters were also killed and 13 civilians injured.
Russia-Turkey deal for Efrin?
Kurdish officials suspect Turkey made a deal with Russia when Turkish government officials visited Moscow earlier this week.
Russia withdrew its forces from the Efrin area ahead of Turkey launching the operation. The Russian Ministry of Defence said in a statement that it had withdrawn the Russian Military Police to prevent provocations and threats to the lives of Russian servicemen.
Aldar Xelil, co-president of the executive body of northern Syria’s Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV DEM) said that in a Friday meeting, Russia asked the Afrin administration to hand over part of its territory to the Syrian regime in return for preventing the Turkish attack on Afrin. Xelil said the offer was refused.
The launch of the Operation Olive Branch comes 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. The U.S. later backtracked on the ‘border guard’ plan after Turkish threats to attack 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.
Updated January 20 to remove a Karar tweet containing video of fighting that is said to be past clashes between Azeri and Armenian forces.