The pro-government Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak reported on Thursday that Syrian Kurdish fighters and Turkish soldiers traded “harassment” and “artillery fire” on the border of the two countries, a sign that the two sides may resort to openly attacking each other as tensions soar in the region.
The Turkish government has enthusiastically objected to the United States announcing training and other assistance for its longtime ally the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), largely consisting of members of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ). The YPG, which advocates for a free Kurdistan, cooperated significantly with the United States in operations against the Islamic State and has minimal contact with the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, considers the YPG a terrorist group indistinguishable from the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization. Washington has designated the PKK a terrorist organization but cooperates with the PKK.
Erdogan has threatened a full military operation in Afrin, a border territory in Syria, against the YPG if the United States does not cease assisting them. American officials have argued that further support to the militia is necessary to ensure that would-be Islamic State terrorists do not use Turkey as a land bridge into the former Islamic State and help the jihadist “caliphate” regroup.
At its peak, Islamic State foot traffic from Turkey to Syria was estimated to be at 100 jihadis per week.
“Harassment fire was opened from the PKK/PYD terrorists in northern Syria in the early hours of Thursday,” Yeni Safak reported. “According to security sources in the region the Turkish Armed Forces responded to the harassment fire with artillery fire.”
Yeni Safak claims that the Turkish soldiers acted in “self-defense.” Warning of a potential full-scale military operation in the region, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu used the same language on Thursday.
“Turkey is subject to attacks every day from Afrin,” Cavusoglu claimed, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency. “It is our right to self-defense in line with international law to take measure against a terror group surrounding us on three sides, violating our rights, and we should intercede.”
The foreign minister accused the United States of “threatening Syria’s territorial integrity” by supporting the YPG. He did not elaborate on how a major Turkish force crossing the border into Syria to attack Syrian militias would not threaten Syria’s territorial integrity.
The Assad regime has categorically rejected the potential of any Turkish presence within its borders.
“We warn the Turkish leadership that in the event of initiating hostilities in the area of Afrin, this will be considered an act of aggression by the Turkish army on the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic’s territories in accordance with the international law known to the Turkish side,” Syrian Deputy Foreign and Expatriates Minister Fayssal Mikdad said in response to Ankara’s threats of invasion.
Mikdad told reporters Assad forces are “ready to destroy the Turkish air targets in the skies of the Syrian Arab Republic” if Turkey attempts any military action in Syria.
The People’s Democratic Union (PYD), the political arm of the YPG and all-female YPJ militias, issued a statement Wednesday warning of an imminent attack on their territories by Kurdish forces in Afrin.
“We call on the international community … to take responsibility toward more than a million people living in Afrin,” the PYD said in a statement, according to Reuters. “The Turkish regime … has become a threat to any solution to the Syrian crisis.”
Tensions soared upon the announcement of a YPG-led, U.S.-supported anti-jihadist border force in Syria. Erdogan reacted swiftly, announcing he would “choke” the U.S.-backed “horde of murderers” and, “If the terrorists in Afrin do not surrender, we will destroy it.”
Yeni Safak Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim Karagül, one of Turkish media’s most effusive Erdogan fanatics, argued in a column that the YPG were somehow implicated in the July 2016 failed coup against Erdogan and that an invasion of Syria was “in some way, the continuation of the July 15 resistance” against Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. Gulen and the YPG have no overt ties, though various elements of the pro-Erdogan political landscape have blamed both for the failed coup.
The State Department has responded to the vitriol by asserting that the fight against the Islamic State is a paramount concern in the region. “The United States is in Syria to defeat ISIS. Any activities that we take part in with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces is something that’s internal only—internal only to Syria,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters on Tuesday.