The Turkish military started a major cross border air operation on the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in Syria’s northwestern Afrin province on Jan. 20, with Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım saying that the land forces might be involved in on Jan. 21.
“The land force units will be involved tomorrow depending on the developments,” he said in a televised press briefing together with opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli.
Dubbing the new campaign “The Olive Branch Operation,” the Turkish military said it began hitting cross-border targets at 5 p.m. local time (1400 GMT) and aimed at the YPG and also the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).
Ankara views the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) and its armed wing YPG as a terrorist group for its links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Jets return to bases
Turkish Chief of Staff Gen Hulusi Akar commanded the operation from the General Staff headquarters in Ankara, where he, at night, received a visit from Yıldırım for a briefing, per reported by state-run Anadolu Agency.
By evening, the army announced it stroke almost all of the targets it had determined in the area, before it announced that 72 fighters jets that took part in the operation returned to their bases.
“Out of 113 designated targets of the Democratic Union Party, Kurdish Syrian terrorist group, 108 have been destroyed as of 18:30 [15:30 GMT]. All the killed and wounded people, who have been sent to hospitals, are members of terrorist groups,” the statement of the Turkish General Staff read.
The Turkish Air Force also reportedly hit the Menagh Military Airbase in northwestern Syria, which the U.S. used for supplying weapons to YPG.
Meanwhile, Ali Erbaş, head of he Turkish Religious Authority, has said that ” conquest prayers” will be performed before the morning and afternoon prayers at mosques.
Tanks being deployed
Following the official statements, around 10 p.m. local time, private television channel CNNTürk showed three Turkish tanks passing through the Öncüpınar border gate to Syria on trucks during a live broadcast.
Hürriyet reporters in the field also reported having seen Turkish tanks being deployed to the district of Hassa in the southern province of Hatay across the Syrian border.
The Turkish Red Crescent, meanwhile, has built up a tent camp in Azez in the east of Afrin as a caution to a possible human flow.
Civilians as ‘human shields’
The Turkish military said the PYD is using civilians in Afrin as “human shield.”
The YPG is using children and women as shields, it said.
The Turkish intelligence has also reportedly confirmed that the YPG is trying to show the hit militants as civilians.
Civilians who have manage to leave Afrin headed toward Aleppo before the YPG blocked the road, reports said.
“Thousands of pro-Turkey civilians have escaped the PKK/YPG-controlled areas in an attempt to reach Aleppo,” an official told Hürriyet Daily News.
“Our assessment is that they would like to use civilians as a human shield and blame potential civilian casualties on Turkey,”
The road to Aleppo has reportedly been shut following an agreement between YPG and the regime, the official said.
The source said the aim of the operation was “to liberate the area by eliminating the PKK-YPG-linked administration, which has been repressing the local population through anti-democratic and authoritarian means.”
“In order to create an environment in which the people of Afrin can govern themselves in a democratic fashion, we aim to rebuild democratic institutions as well as the social and economic infrastructure in the area,” the official said.
“We welcome the local population’s support for Turkey’s military incursion. In our efforts to restore peace and stability in Afrin, we will draw from our experiences in Jarabulus, Azaz and Al-Bab,” the official said, referring to the former operations on the Syrian soil.
The Afrin operation is intended to continue in Manbij, “where local tribes have been calling on Turkey to liberate the area and establish a democratic administration there,” the source said.
The military said the operation was carried out “with respect for Syria’s territorial integrity” and stemmed from Turkey’s rights under international law.
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ also underlined the operation is within legal framework and in line with Turkey’s “right to self-defense” on his Twitter account.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said “The Turkish Republic is determined and capable of destroying all threats against its sovereignty,” on his Twitter account on the same day.
Opposition lends support
Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu lent full support to the operation.
“We are totally confident about our brave army and give full support to the operation. What we mind is the security of our borders. No countries would want a terrorist organization at its border,” he told Hürriyet.
He said it was important that Turkey used the Syrian air space as a result of diplomatic efforts.
Russia voices concerns, repositions Afrin forces
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Ministry called for “restraint” and conveyed they were “concerned” upon receiving news about the Turkish military engagement in Syria, Reuters reported.
Russian has also relocated some of its ground forces in Syria following the developments.
“The operations group of the center for reconciliation of warring sides and military police have been redeployed from the area of Afrin to the area of Tel Ajar in the Tel Rifaat de-confliction zone in order to avoid possible provocations and to ensure Russian servicemen’s lives and health are not exposed to risks,” Russian TASS reported, citing the Russian Defense Ministry.
The U.S., on the other hand, said the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL was not involved in any operation in Syria’s Afrin, calling on parties to avoid escalating tensions and focus on fight on ISIL.
“We encourage all parties to avoid escalation and to focus on the most important task of defeating ISIS,” said Pentagon spokesperson Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway said in written statement on Jan. 20, using another acronym for ISIL.
“We recognize Turkey’s security concerns about the PKK, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. The U.S. does not provide any support to PKK. The US-led Coalition does not have operations ongoing in Afrin because it is focused on military operations against ISIS,” he said.
The operation followed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s announcement that the Afrin operation “actively” began on the same day.