ISTANBUL - Turkey struck several targets in Syria on Tuesday after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued new threats to launch a ground operation soon against Kurdish fighters despite calls for de-escalation from Washington and Moscow.
Ankara launched a series of air strikes in Operation Claw-Sword on Sunday – hitting dozens of Kurdish targets across Iraq and Syria – and announcing that its military was once again “on top of the terrorists”.
The air raids followed a bombing in Istanbul on Sunday that killed six people and wounded 81.
Turkey blamed the attack on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is blacklisted as a terror group by the European Union and the United States.
The Turkish leader has threatened a new military operation into northern Syria since May and upped those threats in the wake of this month’s attack.
“We have been on top of terrorists for a few days with our planes, cannons and drones,” President Erdogan told a ceremony in the Black Sea province of Artvin.
“God willing, we will root out all of them soon with our tanks, artillery and soldiers.”
The PKK, which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984, denied any role in the Nov 13 bombing – the deadliest in five years after a spate of attacks in Turkey between 2015 and 2017.
On Tuesday evening, Turkish artillery shelling continued on the city of Kobane in northern Syria, controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Earlier, a Turkish drone strike hit a base in northeast Syria used by Kurdish forces and the US-led coalition, the Kurds and a war monitor said.
Two SDF fighters were killed, a spokesman for the group said, but no US troops were there or in danger, according to the US Central Command.
Centcom spokesman Joe Buccino said: “We oppose any military action that destabilises the situation in Syria.”
Five civilians were killed and three others seriously wounded in northwest Syria Tuesday when rockets were fired at a city controlled by Turkish proxy forces, the war monitor said.
A child was among the dead when rockets targeted a market in Azaz, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Turkish drone strikes also hit a small oil field near the border town of Al-Qahtaniyah, an AFP correspondent reported. The war monitor confirmed the strikes.
The US late on Monday urged de-escalation and Russia said on Tuesday it hoped Turkey would exercise restraint and refrain from “excessive use of force” in Syria.
“We understand and respect Turkey’s concerns regarding its own security... We still call on all parties to refrain from steps that could lead to seriously destabilising the situation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Germany and France have also called on Turkey to show restraint and act in a proportional manner.
Mr Erdogan said his government knew “who protects, arms and encourages those terrorists”, in a veiled reference to Washington, which relied heavily on Syrian Kurdish forces in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.
He said Turkey had been patient enough, “not because it was desperate”, but because it was loyal to diplomacy.
“The road has come to an end for those who think they can keep Turkey waiting by playing with letters and changing the name of the terrorist organisation,” said Mr Erdogan.
His Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the Kurdish fighters wanted to establish “a terrorist state around us, we could not allow that. Protecting our borders and our nation is our responsibility and duty”.
In Syria, the principal target of the Turkish campaign is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who dominate the SDF.
Washington forged a close alliance with the SDF during their successful campaign to oust ISIS from Syrian territory. But Ankara regards it as a terror group linked to the PKK.
Mr Erdogan has repeatedly called for a 30km safe zone to protect Turkey against cross-border attacks from Syrian territory.
At least three people, including a child, were killed in a Turkish border town Monday by a rocket fired from Syria.
Mr Anthony Skinner, a Turkey expert and a political risk consultant, told AFP that conditions “are in place for a particularly robust campaign” against Kurdish fighters ahead of Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections in June.
“Erdogan wants to bolster support for his AKP and its (nationalist) MHP allies, so he is playing the nationalist and security card. Hence the noise,” he said.
“Erdogan effectively used the security and stability cards in the run-up to the re-run of the general election in 2015. But his work is cut out now because of economic and socio-economic pressures.” AFP