Turkey launches ‘Olive Branch Operation’ against ‘PKK threat in Syria’
HATAY / ANKARA / ISTANBUL
The Turkish military has launched a crossborder land operation into the Syrian province of Afrin to fight the Syrian Kurdish militia the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group Ankara has deemed a “terror group” for its links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The operation, which has been dubbed “Operation Olive Branch,” is being carried out in conjunction with Turkey’s allies in the Syrian civil war the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and began on Jan. 21 shortly after the Turkish air force hit YPG targets to prepare for the advance.
“Our units entered Afrin from two branches at 11:05 a.m. [on Jan. 21] with the Free Syrian Army [FSA]. This means the land operation has begun,” Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım told the editors of news outlets in a meeting in Istanbul.
The “Olive Branch Operation,” which came hours after a major air strike on YPG targets, will consist of four phases, and aims to establish a “safe zone” with a depth of 30 kilometers, he added.
Turkey is also supporting the advance of Turkish troops and the FSA with tanks and cross-border artillery fire.
‘Four phases’ to Olive Branch Op
The first phase aims to secure a “safe zone” on the Turkish borders between Azaz and Afrin, Yıldırım said.
A “cleaning” phase will follow the first phase, and this will require an even more thorough job, the prime minister said, adding that “there was no need to rush.”
The Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing the YPG are not the only terrorist groups in the operation area, Yıldırım said, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) militants who were allowed to evacuate Raqqa under U.S. watch, according to a BBC report.
“There are around 8,000 to 10,000 terrorists in Afrin,” Yıldırım said.
“The PKK, the YPG, the PYD are all the same. Changing their names does not change the fact they are terror organizations,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said at a public rally in the northwestern province of Bursa on Jan. 21.
Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar, who commanded the air operation from the General Staff headquarters in Ankara, visited the southern border province of Hatay on Jan. 21 to inspect the units taking part in the Afrin operation.
Eight F-16 fighter jets took off from the Diyarbakır 8th Main Jet Base within 20 minutes at around 12:42 p.m. local time on Jan. 21, Doğan News Agency reported. Fighter jets also took off from Konya’s 3rd Main Jet Base.
Military sources have told daily Hürriyet that FSA units backed by Turkish tanks are advancing on the field and that YPG militants are withdrawing to villages and towns without putting up serious resistance.
Turkish Air Force strikes 153 targets
By the evening of Jan. 20, the military said it had struck almost all of its targets in the area, adding that the 72 fighter jets that took part in the operation had safely returned to their bases.
“Out of the 113 PYD targets, 108 have been destroyed as of 18:30 [15:30 GMT on Jan 20.]. All the killed and wounded people, who have been sent to hospitals, are members of terrorist groups,” read the statement from the Turkish General Staff.
The next day, on Jan. 21, the Turkish General Staff said 153 targets were hit in an operation carried out “with respect for Syria’s territorial integrity” and stemming from Turkey’s rights under international law.
The Air Forces also hit the Menagh Military Airbase in northwestern Syria, which the U.S. has used for supplying weapons to the YPG.
The Turkish Red Crescent has built up a tent camp in Azez in the east of Afrin as a precautionary measure in advance of a possible human flow.
The YPG strikes back
Three missile attacks hit the Reyhanlı district in the southern province of Hatay on the Syrian border on Jan. 21, Doğan News Agency reported.
“Recently our border areas have been attacked more than 700 times. Last night six rockets were fired into Kilis. No one has lost their lives, the origin of the rocket fire was determined and the location destroyed,” PM Yıldırım said shortly before the latest attack.
The Turkish military stated that the YPG is “using civilians in Afrin as a human shield,” while the National Intelligence Agency (MİT) has also reportedly confirmed that the YPG is “trying to depict the militants hit by military operations as civilians.”
“Thousands of pro-Turkey civilians have escaped the PKK/YPG-controlled areas in an attempt to reach Aleppo. Our assessment is that the PKK/YPG would like to use civilians as a human shield and blame potential civilian casualties on Turkey,” one official told the Hürriyet Daily News.