Turkey shells Kurdish militia in Syria as tensions mount

Turkey again shelled Kurdish militia in Syria on Sunday despite calls from Washington for an end to the strikes, as tensions mounted just days before a ceasefire deal is meant to take hold.

The shelling targeted Kurdish forces who have been advancing in Aleppo province in a bid to seize ground ahead of the proposed ceasefire, put forward by world powers last week.

Saudi Arabia meanwhile said it had deployed warplanes to a Turkish airbase, after Ankara said it was mulling ground operations in Syria with Saudi troops.

The Kurdish advances and Turkish attacks, which Ankara said targeted Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) targets, threatened to undermine efforts to implement the ceasefire, which diplomats agreed in Munich on Friday should begin within a week.

The Turkish shelling, which began on Saturday, reportedly targeted the Minnigh airbase — recently taken from Islamist rebels by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-Arab militia — and a string of nearby villages.

Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency reported on Sunday the army struck Kurdish targets around the Syrian town of Azaz using howitzers stationed on the Turkish side of the border, in response to incoming fire.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said heavy shelling overnight focused on the airport and nearby town of Deir Jamal.

At least two SDF fighters were killed and seven wounded, said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

Ankara said it was targeting forces loyal to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is a key component of the SDF.

The US military is working closely with Kurdish forces in northern Syria but Turkey considers the PYD and YPG to be branches of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

– Saudi says warplanes deployed –

The upsurge in violence triggered alarm in Washington, with State Department spokesman John Kirby urging Ankara to halt the strikes and Kurdish forces to stand down.

“We are concerned about the situation north of Aleppo and are working to de-escalate tensions on all sides,” Kirby said in a statement.

He said Washington was urging Kurdish forces and their allies “not to take advantage of a confused situation by seizing new territory” and calling on Turkey to cease its strikes.

After taking the airbase, the SDF has been advancing on the town of Tal Rifaat, an Islamist rebel stronghold only 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the Turkish border.

Fighting at Tal Rifaat on Sunday left at least 15 rebels dead, Abdel Rahman said, adding that there were ongoing Russian air strikes in the area.

Kurdish forces already control a large stretch of the Syrian side of the border with Turkey and Ankara has been angered by US support for the Kurds.

Its concerns have heightened after tens of thousands of Syrians fled to the border amid a Russian-backed regime offensive in northern Aleppo province.

NATO member Turkey is a key part of the US-led coalition that has been carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq since 2014.

Saudi Arabia, another member, said it had deployed warplanes to the Turkish base of Incirlik, a hub for coalition operations already used by Britain, France and the United States for cross-border air raids.

“The Saudi kingdom now has a presence at Incirlik airbase in Turkey,” senior Saudi defence official Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri was quoted as saying by Al-Arabiya television late on Saturday.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Saturday that Saudi jets would be deployed at Incirlik, and that the two countries could participate in ground operations against IS in Syria.

– Russia ‘will not save’ Assad –

Riyadh and Ankara are both opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who this week warned that any ground intervention would be resisted.

But Assiri said there was consensus within the anti-IS coalition on “the need for ground operations” and that military experts would meet shortly to decide “the role to be played by each country.”

Saudi Arabia and Turkey have long supported Syria’s rebels and see Assad’s overthrow as essential for ending Syria’s five-year civil war, which has left more 260,000 dead and forced millions from their homes.

They fear a recent diplomatic push to resolve the conflict could leave Assad in power as Western attention turns more to the threat from IS, which has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq and claimed responsibility for deadly attacks in the West.

Both countries have also been outraged by Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which Moscow says is targeting “terrorists” but critics say aims to prop up the Assad regime.

Russia, which has been carrying out air strikes in Syria since September, has also warned against any ground intervention.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Sunday that Russia’s efforts to support Assad would not succeed.

“(Assad) has sought the help of Russia, which will fail to save him,” Jubeir told a press conference in Riyadh.