Syrian rebels, backed by Turkish artillery and fighter jets, pushed deeper into territory controlled by Kurdish militia, killing dozens of people in a marked escalation of Ankara’s intervention in Syria’s five-year conflict.
The Turkish-backed rebels reportedly seized four Syrian villages and one town from Kurdish forces over the weekend, including Amarnah where the fighting was particularly intense. Kurdish militia also killed a Turkish soldier in an attack on a tank on Saturday — Turkey’s first casualty since it launched an offensive to seize the Syrian town of Jarablus last week in one of its most dramatic interventions in Syria’s war.
The operation began on Wednesday and was ostensibly against Isis, which had controlled Jarablus for three years. But Turkish officials also acknowledged that the offensive was intended to push back Syrian Kurds, which Ankara considers an extension of outlawed Turkish Kurdish groups.
Washington — which has endured strained relations with Ankara since the failed putsch against Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July — provided air support and intelligence to the Turkish military for the attack on Jarablus, which lies close to the Turkish-Syrian border.
But the escalation of fighting in northern Syria is likely to put the US in an awkward position and could complicate the battle against jihadi groups. The US has supported the Syrian Kurdish militia, which have proven themselves to be the most effective fighting force against Isis.
At least 35 people were killed in the clashes between the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, a rebel group fighting to oust Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and Kurdish militia south of Jarablus, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Shervan Darwish, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF], a US-backed group dominated by Kurdish militia, said Turkish air strikes and shelling began on Saturday night and continued throughout Sunday, killing many civilians. He claimed that 50 Turkish tanks were taking part.
Turkey’s military said on Sunday it had killed 25 Kurdish militants in air strikes targeting the Jarablus region.
The SDF’s ranks include YPG militia, a powerful Syrian Kurdish group and a prime target of Turkey’s intervention in the Syrian war.
Ankara — which is battling a resurgence of a 30-year war with the PKK, an outlawed Turkish Kurdish group — fear the Syrian Kurds have a broader strategy of establishing a de facto state in northern Syria that could one day aspire to independence.
Mr Erdogan told a rally of his supporters in Gaziantep, a city in southern Turkey where Isis was blamed for an attack on a wedding that killed more than 50 people, that the offensive in Syria was allowing residents of Jarablus to return home.
“Our operations against terrorist organisations will continue until the end,” he said, citing Isis, Kurdish insurgents and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based cleric he blames for the failed coup.
After Turkish tanks rolled across the Syrian border last week, the YPG claimed its fighters had withdrawn east of the Euphrates, as requested by the US, including Manbij, an important town south of Jarablus, which it seized from Isis earlier this month.
Colonel Ahmed Osman, head of a Turkish-backed Syrian rebel group, told Reuters his fighters would advance to Manbij and hoped to secure the town within days.
Syrian rebel groups posted videos and photographs on social media that they claimed showed captured Kurdish fighters in the Amarnah area.
Mustapha Sayjari, another rebel commander, said fighting had broken out on two fronts — with Isis in and around Al-Rai, and south of Jarablus against Kurdish forces in Ain Al-Bayda and Amarnah.
Mr Sayjari said the YPG were using civilians as human shields south of Jarablus. “They are deliberately clustering their vehicles and troops in areas which have civilians in them,” he said. “We hold them completely responsible for the deaths as it was their actions that have caused the fighting.”
The YPG made no public statements on the latest fighting.
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