Turkey’s military has begun directly targeting Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) in Syria as part of Operation Euphrates Shield, initially billed as an assault on the Islamic State.
The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reports that airstrikes against the YPG — a U.S.-allied Marxist militia that has established itself as one of the most successful groups combatting ISIS — began on Sunday following the death of a Turkish soldier in Syria engaging with YPG militia members.
“Operation Euphrates Shield” began last week when the government of Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan began moving tanks into Syria. The Turkish government asserts that the operation is intended to curb Islamic State expansion in Syria and announced the move shortly after an ISIS attack on a wedding in the city of Gaziantep.
The Turks are supporting the Free Syria Army and some Turkmen militias fighting ISIS near the key battlegrounds of Jarablus and Manbij. “Operation Euphrates Shield, which was launched on Wednesday, is aimed at improving security, supporting coalition forces and eliminating the terror threat along Turkey’s border through Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters backed by Turkish armor, artillery and jets,” the state-run Anadolu Agency reports.
From the state, however, the Turks have made clear that the YPG and PKK are some of the main targets of the operation. Among their first demands to cease the operation was for the YPG to move east of the Euphrates River, after successes against ISIS moved them west of the river and closer to Turkey.
Last week, during a diplomatic visit to Ankara, Vice President Joe Biden warned YPG leaders that not retreating east would jeopardize the U.S. backing the YPG is currently receiving in the fight against ISIS. Shortly after Biden’s remarks, reports began to surface that the YPG had begun moving east.
They apparently did not move east quickly enough to avoid being targeted by the Turkish military. On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu once again emphasized that the Kurdish militia would continue to be targeted “until it moves east of the Euphrates River.” “They need to move to the east side of Euphrates River as soon as possible, as they had announced and as the U.S. had promised,” he added.
On Monday, YPG spokesman Ibrahim Ibrahim once again told media that the YPG is no longer to the west of the river. The YPG, he claimed, was out of Jarablus and Manbij, “Because the YPG are east of the Euphrates.” Anadolu Agency confirmed that Jarablus, at least, had been “liberated” from the YPG.
The YPG has begun to allege that Turkish troops have used some chemical agents in battle and is accusing the Free Syria Army and other Turkish-backed militias of torture against YPG prisoners. The Kurdish media outlet Rudaw has published a video that appears to show Free Syria Army individuals beating YPG prisoners, including soldiers. The FSA did not deny that the event occurred, but they issued a statement condemning the YPG for its use of child soldiers, which violates international human rights laws: “it is the YPG commanders who recruit and use kids in war.”
The Turkish government considers the YPG an armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist U.S.-designated terrorist group. American officials disagree and treat them as separate groups. The two have cooperated on the battlefield against ISIS.