Town of Afrin will be miltary's first target before other border areas held by Kurds, Turkish president says
Syrian Kurds mobilise civilians as Erdogan warns of attack 'at any moment'
Syrian Kurdish officials are mobilising citizens to defend the town of Afrin as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned on Monday that an attack was imminent.
“The Self Administration in Afrin has taken all measures,” said Egid Rashid, head of the media office of the Democratic Self Administration, the local government associated with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD.
“The citizens of the district are guarding its borders and are ready to sacrifice everything to protect Afrin. If Turkey attacks Afrin, then Afrin will be a powerful and unforgettable lesson for Turkey,” he said.
Mr Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to attack Afrin, which is held by the PYD militia known as the People's Protection Units, or PYG. Turkey considers the Kurdish force to be affiliated with Turkish Kurds battling for autonomy in Turkey’s south-east.
Turkey has long supported largely Arab rebel groups fighting the Syrian government, and has also depended on those groups to act as a deterrent to ambitions of Kurdish autonomy inside Syria.
Mr Rashid said Afrin had "for years now been under a systematic siege posed by mercenary groups supported by the Turkish occupation”.
He said Turkish forces had been shelling Afrin from positions inside Syria and from positions in Turkey since Saturday, and the YPG had responded to movements by Turkish-backed forces with heavy machine gun fire.
The YPG makes up the core of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces militia which helped drive ISIL from territory in eastern Syria last year. It was unclear what role that support might play in case of an attack on Afrin. While the US military has said it will continue to provide support to the SDF with a focus on securing Syria’s border with Iraq, Afrin is cut off from the majority of the territory the SDF controls in eastern Syria.
“There isn't a clear statement by America about the situation in Afrin,” Mr Rashid said.
Turkey has repeatedly objected to US support for the YPG and an announcement by the US-coalition against ISIL on Sunday that it was forming 30,000-strong border protection force that would include Kurdish militias triggered fresh outrage.
The coalition said the force would prevent ISIL "freedom of movement and deny the transportation of illicit materials" so that the Syrian people can establish “effective local, representative governance and reclaim their land”.
Mr Erdogan on Monday accused Washington of establishing an “army of terror” along the Turkish border.
“Turkey will suffocate this terror army before it’s born,” he said. “Our preparations have been completed. The operation is due to start any moment. After that, other regions will follow.”
Ankara fears that the inclusion of Syrian Kurdish fighters in the border force will enable them to stage attacks on Turkey. It also says it will further their aim to consolidate a single autonomous region including Afrin along the Turkish frontier, and embolden PKK separatists the Turkish military has been fighting for more than three decades.
Turkey sent its military into northern Syria in 2016 as part of the fight against ISIL, an operation that also prevented Syrian Kurds from joining up Kurdish-held areas to the east and west along the Syrian-Turkish border. Its forces are currently deployed in Idlib province as part of an agreement reached with Russia and Iran to create de-escalation zones in Syria's civil war.
While Turkey has backed rebels in the conflict, Russia and Iran have provided military support to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.
Russia and Syria on Monday portrayed the planned border force as a challenge to the Syrian government's sovereignty.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said the new force was a sign Washington "doesn't want to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria", adding that it was "not helping calm the situation".
A Syrian foreign ministry official said the plan was "a blatant breach of Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity", the state news agency Sana reported.