Turkish troops head to the Syrian border, in Karkamis, Turkey, Credit: AP
By Josie Ensor, Middle East Correspondent
28 August 2016 • 3:28pm
Dozens of civilians were killed in Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish-held areas in Syria on Sunday, as the West’s two main allies in the conflict inched closer to full-blown war.
Some 35 people died in dawn raids on Jeb el-Kussa and Al-Amarneh, villages close to the Turkish border.
Ankara, which has the support of the US, claimed they were “terrorists” from outlawed Kurdish militias.
The Jarablus Military Council, which is allied with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said the strikes marked an “unprecedented and dangerous escalation”.
Turkey also suffered its first casualty in Operation Euphrates Shield after an attack by Kurdish fighters left one soldier dead and three injured.
Smoke rises after an explosion at the Syrian border as part of their offensive against the Islamic State (Isil) militant group in Syria, Karkamis district of Gaziantep, Turkey, 27 August 2016 Credit: EPA
Ankara sent tanks across the border to help Syrian rebels drive Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) out of the frontier town of Jarablus last week in a dramatic escalation of its involvement in the Syrian civil war.
As the offensive pushes south it has met with resistance from the SDF, leading to violent clashes.
Turkish officials have openly state that their goal is as much about ensuring Kurdish forces do not expand the territory they already control along Turkey’s frontier, as it is about driving Isil jihadists from their strongholds.
In partnering with Turkey, the US hoped to gain a professional military army in the fight against Isil. However Ankara has so far focused mostly on targeting Kurdish forces, who have been a reliable ally to America.
Fighting between the two will raise deep concerns for Washington and could now force it to pick a side.
Turkey has been vague about how far the offensive will push inside Syria. But Saif Abu Bakr, the commander of a battalion of Syrian rebels inside Jarablus, told the Telegraph they plan to take Manbij and continue until they reach the city of al-Bab some 50 miles south of the border.
Any push towards Manbij would be controversial. The SDF liberated the city from Isil earlier this month, but now the US has ordered them out to appease Turkey.
Using the cover of the chaotic civil war, Syria’s Kurds have been consolidating territory that they hope will one day form part of an autonomous region in northern Syria.
Turkish army tanks are stationed near the Syrian border in Karkamis, Turkey Credit: AP
In recent months the Kurdish YPG, fighting as part of the SDF, has managed to take large swathes of territory from Isil.
Their expansion has alarmed Ankara, which sees the YPG as linked to militant Kurdish groups waging an insurgency in southern Turkey, and worries that its success will embolden separatist sentiments at home.
Operation Euphrates Shield would split Kurdish territory in the north of the country and prevent Syria’s Kurds from creating their federal state.
Washington’s apparent shift of alliances has left some Syrian Kurds feeling betrayed.
“They are angry, they didn’t expect to be asked to withdraw from Manbij, a city where a lot of Kurdish blood was spilled,” said Idriss Nissan, a political analyst living in the northern Syrian town of Kobane, which was liberated from Isil by Kurdish forces last year. “The Kurds are the most effective force in fighting terrorism, the US needs us.”
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the DC-based Middle East Institute, said Washington’s support for the latest offensive in Syria risked further complicating the intractable war.
“We’re now seeing US-supplied weaponry being used by both sides, to fight each other. The US’s counter-Isil strategy will create a secondary war in northern Syria that’ll outlast that versus (President Bashar) Assad,” he said.
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