Kurdish mourners carry the coffins of people killed by Turkish shelling and air strikes in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
Kurdish mourners carry the coffins of people killed by Turkish shelling and air strikes in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Sipam Jan

Kurds holding Turkey back

TURKEY is hoping for a quick victory in Afrin, but its soldiers and its allied Syrian militiamen are facing counter-attacks by Kurdish forces on villages close to the border.

The Kurds are reported to be readying reinforcements to join the battle from their bases in northeast Syria, where they have thousands of troops who until recently were fighting Islamic State.

Kurdish fighters say at least 18 civilians, including women and children, have been killed in the offensive by Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says there will be "no stepping back from Afrin”, which means the campaign, bizarrely named "Operation Olive Branch”, will continue.

But it will take time to drive the Kurdish YPG paramilitary forces out of the Afrin enclave north of Aleppo.

The Turkish offensive has captured only a few villages close to the border in three days and there are 350 villages in Afrin.

The population of Afrin is estimated at 200,000, many of whom will become refugees if Turkey succeeds.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a Kurdish counter-attack had recaptured two villages, Shenkal and Adamaly.

Turkey needs a swift success in Afrin because it is diplomatically isolated and international pressure to end the fighting is growing .

France has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council and Britain says it will look for ways to prevent escalation.

But Mr Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara that Turkey had discussed the Afrin offensive "with our Russian friends, we have an agreement with them”.

This probably refers to Russia agreeing to limited Turkish action as a warning to the Kurds not to become the permanent proxies of the US in Syria.

Turkish forces and some 10,000 Free Syrian Army militia based in Turkey would be facing even more difficulties if Russia had not allowed Turkish jets to operate in Syrian airspace.

Turkey is a member of NATO but has become closer to Russia because of US military support for the Syrian Kurds against IS since 2014 and Turkish suspicion of US complicity in the failed military coup against Mr Erdogan in 2016.

A clash between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds was always likely once IS had been defeated, and Ankara had hoped the US would drop its alliance with the Kurds after the demise of IS.

But last week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said US troops would stay in Syria on an open-ended basis to prevent the advance of President Bashar al-Assad's forces and reduce Iranian influence in Syria.

This was a dangerous new departure for the US in Syria.

He said the continued US presence would stabilise Syria the country, but in fact - but it did the exact opposite.

He does not seem to have taken on board that this was wholly predictable since his words would anger Russia, Syria and Iran but, most importantly, would have an even more explosive impact on Turkey.

In effect, the US was underwriting the existence of a small, permanent Kurdish state under US protection and controlled by people whom Mr Erdogan had denounced as "terrorists” and promised to destroy.

Several days earlier the US had said it would train a 30,000 strong border force to be drawn from the ranks of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

This grouping contains Arab fighters, but is essentially run by the Kurds.

Turkey is putting out contradictory signals about how long its operation will last. Mr Erdogan insisted that it will go on as long as necessary, regardless of outside pressure.

But Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek who oversees economic affairs said: "Our investors should be at ease, the impact will be limited, the operation will be brief and it will reduce the terror risk to Turkey in the period ahead.”

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