DOZENS of people have been killed in Turkish bombardments in Syria since Sunday, as Ankara ramps up its unprecedented offensive against Kurdish fighters and any IS members that get in the way of the Turkish army and its militia allies.
Ankara said it had killed 35 Kurdish ‘terrorists’ and insisted the army was doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. But the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 40 civilians were killed in Turkish shelling and air strikes on two areas held by pro-Kurdish forces in northern Syria, the first report of significant civilian casualties in Turkey’s operation.
The bombardments came after Ankara suffered its first military fatality in the two-pronged offensive against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia and any IS forces that have not quit the area. Addressing a rally in the southern city of Gaziantep, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to combat the jihadists and the US-backed Kurdish fighters ‘with the same determination.
‘We will make any kind of contribution to the work to clear Daesh (IS) from Syria,’ Erdogan told thousands of flag-waving supporters in the city where a suicide bomber suspected of IS links blew himself up at a wedding party last weekend. Regarding ‘the PYD (Democratic Union Party) terror group in Syria, we have just the same determination,’ Erdogan said, referring to the main pro-Kurdish party in northern Syria and its YPG militia.
On Sunday, Turkish forces ramped up their offensive against pro-Kurdish forces near a town wrested back from IS this week by Turkish-backed Arab rebels. According to the Observatory, Turkish artillery fire and air strikes on Jeb el-Kussa village killed at least 20 civilians and wounded 50 others. Another 20 were killed and 25 wounded in air strikes near the town of Al-Amarneh, it added.
The monitor also said at least four Kurdish fighters were killed and 15 wounded in the two areas. Turkey claimed the dead were 25 ‘terrorists’ from the YPG and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – the state-run Anadolu news agency said. It also quoted an army spokesman: ‘All possible measures are being taken to prevent harm to the civilian population living in the area.’
Sunday’s operations took Turkey deeper inside Syria, into an area where the Kurdish forces that control much of the border had begun to expand. Jeb el-Kussa is located 14 kilometres (almost nine miles) south of Jarabulus, the IS border stronghold which Turkish-backed Arab rebels captured on the first day of the incursion.
The rebels say they have captured at least nine towns and villages, including Jarabulus, from IS and Kurdish forces since last Wednesday. In a statement Saturday, Kurdish forces accused Ankara of seeking to ‘expand its occupation’ inside Syria.
The latest fighting is likely to raise deep concerns with Washington, Turkey’s NATO ally which supports the YPG as an effective adversary of IS.
But Turkey considers the YPG a ‘terrorist’ group and vehemently opposes its attempts to create a contiguous autonomous zone along its border, fearing it could strengthen the Kurdish rebels fighting the state in southeast Turkey. Ankara says the YPG has broken a promise made to the US to go back across the Euphrates River after advancing westwards earlier this month.
On Sunday, the first Turkish casualty in the operation was flown home from Gaziantep for burial in his home province of Duzce on the Black Sea. Erdogan also met relatives of the victims of the August 20 suicide bombing in Gaziantep, which hit a Kurdish wedding, reaffirming his earlier claim that the bomber was a 14-year-old boy.
Ankara’s military intervention has added another dimension to Syria’s complex multi-front war, a devastating conflict that has killed more than 290,000 people and forced millions from their homes since March 2011. The Observatory said government forces on Sunday resumed shelling and air strikes on the rebel-held Waer district of Homs city, killing three people and wounding another 20.
Much of the heaviest fighting this summer has focused on the second city of Aleppo, which is roughly divided between rebel forces and President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. Global powers have been pushing for 48-hour humanitarian ceasefires in the embattled city. Russia, which backs Assad, has endorsed the proposal. But some rebel groups have rejected the plan.
• Forces loyal to Libya’s UN-backed unity government on Sunday pushed into the last areas of Sirte held by the Islamic State group in what was the jihadists’ coastal stronghold.
Loyalists to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord have, for more than three months, been pressing an offensive to retake the city from the jihadists. IS captured Sirte – which had been the hometown of Libya’s slain leader Muammar Gadaffii – in June 2015, sparking fears the extremists would use it as a launchpad for attacks in Europe.
Pro-GNA forces earlier this month made a significant breakthrough by seizing a conference centre where IS had set up base, pinning down the jihadists in a small downtown area near the sea.
‘Our forces entered the last areas held by Daesh (the Arab acronym for IS) in Sirte: district number one and district number three,’ Redaq Issa, a spokesman for the pro-GNA forces, said on Sunday. The final battle for Sirte has started,’ he said of the city which is 450 kilometres (280 miles) east of the capital Tripoli.
About 1,000 pro-GNA fighters were taking part in the offensive, he said. Eighteen loyalists had been killed and 120 others wounded in clashes since the start of Sunday’s offensive, a field hospital for the pro-GNA forces said.
A photographer saw several tanks and armed vehicles move towards district number one and heard gunfire and rocket explosions as they entered the northern neighbourhood. The pro-GNA forces said on their Facebook page that the offensive came ‘after air strikes overnight’.
US warplanes have been backing the assault to expel IS from Sirte, launched in mid-May, since August 1st. As of August 24, US warplanes had carried out a total of 82 strikes, according to the United States Africa Command. The pro-GNA forces fought their way into Sirte on June 9th and seized the jihadists’ headquarters at the Ouagadougou conference centre on August 10.
Since entering the city, they have faced a barrage of sniper fire, suicide bombings and booby traps. Pro-GNA forces are mostly made up of militias from western cities that have sided with the unity government of prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj and the guards of oil installations that IS has repeatedly tried to seize.
For several days before Sunday’s assault, these fighters had been gathering on the outskirts of Sirte and around district number one and district number three, troops told a journalist in the city. Fighters armed and prepared their tanks for inspection, while other soldiers disassembled and cleaned their guns.
‘I”m cleaning my weapon and getting it ready for the decisive battle’ against IS, said one soldier. We hope that God will help us defeat them,’ Osama Mohammad Mosbah said. Fighting broke out on Saturday on the edges of district number one between the jihadists and pro-GNA fighters armed with machineguns and rocket launchers, the reporter said, after relative calm since late Thursday.
Pro-GNA snipers deployed onto the roofs of buildings whose facades were still painted with the jihadists’ black flag, using binoculars to scan their surroundings for IS fighters. Another anti-IS fighter, Ali Faraj Ben Saeed, said: ‘Of course the main weapons of the IS group are bombs. They rely on booby traps and suicide belts mainly.’
More than 370 pro-GNA fighters have been killed and nearly 2,000 wounded in the battle, according to medical sources. IS casualty figures are unavailable.
Analysts say that ousting the jihadists from their former North African stronghold would be a symbolic boost for Libya’s fragile unity government, but it could also set the stage for further conflict. They say the loss of IS’s main stronghold could prompt the group to launch more scattered attacks across the country, which remains an important recruitment base for the jihadists.
IS has taken advantage of chaos in Libya since the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed Gadaffi, where rival militias and authorities have vied for control of the oil-rich country. A UN-brokered deal struck in December led to Sarraj’s unity government taking office in the capital, but it has since struggled to fully assert its authority.
The presidential council headed by Sarraj said on Wednesday it would present a new cabinet line-up in an attempt to secure the backing of parliament. The legislature, which rejected a previous unity government in a vote on Monday, gave the council a ‘final chance’ and 10 days to propose a new cabinet.