Turkey has continued its aggressive shelling of Kurdish militia positions overnight on Friday in northern Syria with the Syrian People’s Protection Units, or YPG, with the militia claiming that 70 shells struck Afrin.
Ankara considers the Syrian Kurds a terrorist group in league with the PKK, a widely condemned Kurdish terror group active in Turkey’s southeast, and has said for months it would clear YPG fighters from Afrin, under Kurdish control since 2012.
Turkish Defense Minister described the artillery attacks as the “de facto start” of a publicly touted planned invasion of Afrin.
While Turkish diplomats, military officials and intelligence chiefs are in Moscow in an attempt to gain access to the Russian-controlled airspace above Afrin and approval from Iran, the Syrian regime made clear its opposition to a military move.
Damascus, a close ally of Russia, said it would shoot down any Turkish warplanes that entered its airspace, considering a military incursion an act of aggression, according to Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.
Kurdish leadership said the enclave would be protected by the effective YPG militia, a close ally of the United States-led anti-Daesh (IS) coalition and widely-regarded as one of, if not the most, effective ground-fighting force against the militants.
Tanks, soldiers and other military might from Turkey have amassed near the country’s border with Syria in Kuslaki, north of Afrin.
The YPG called on the international community to stop Turkey from its targeted offensive on what they claim is a population of one million in Afrin.
Since the recapture of Raqqa and the general territorial defeat of so-called Islamic State, the U.S. has worked with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to create a northern Syrian border security force with training classes already launched.
Ankara views the YPG as associated with the illegal Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a decades-old insurgency in the country’s southeast.
The Syrian Kurds, however, deny any association with the insurgents, a point backed by Washington and its allies who have provided air support, special forces and supplies to the SDF in a years long campaign to drive Islamic State from Syria.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan, in moves that further strains tensions with the U.S., consistently says that a so-called “terror corridor” will not be allowed to exist, fearing the Kurdish territory in Syria could be a support ground for insurgents.
Ankara has ordered several artillery strikes on Afrin, with the Kurds utilizing rocket fire in response.
Rojhat Roj, a Kurdish spokesman in Afrin, said it was the heaviest Turkish bombardment since Ankara stepped up threats to take military action against the Kurdish enclave.
Roj said the YPG would respond with utmost force to any attack on Afrin.
“Currently there are no casualties, all the damages are material so far,” he explained.
Turkish officials say the Afrin offensive is an extension of it’s anti-Kurdish offensive that ended in March of last year, known as Euphrates Shield.
The operation was an effort to push Islamic State fighters from its border and block Kurdish forces from gaining more territory in northern Syria.
Image of Turkish military in Syria from Middle East Monitor.