Erdoğan signals possible ground offensive in northern Syria

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Turkey could expand military operations against Kurdish militants in northern Syria to include a land incursion, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, threatening to escalate tensions in a region where US and Russian troops are present.

“This is not limited to just an air campaign,” Erdoğan told reporters, according to a readout from his office on Monday, after air strikes targeting the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) in Iraq and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), its Syrian affiliate. “We will consult with our defence ministry and general staff and decide together the extent to which our land forces need to contribute, then take our steps accordingly.”

Erdoğan has for months threatened a fresh ground offensive against the YPG, which he says poses a national security risk for Turkey. Government officials said the air strikes against almost 90 PKK and YPG targets were in retaliation for a bomb attack in central Istanbul that killed six people and wounded 81 others last week.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 35 people were killed in the strikes over the weekend. The Turkish defence ministry said it was continuing its “response” on Monday after shelling from northern Syria hit a Turkish residential area near the border, killing two people.

Turkey is in contact with the other countries that have troops in Syria, Erdoğan said, but added he did not alert either US president Joe Biden or Russian leader Vladimir Putin about the strikes. Biden and Erdoğan met on the sidelines of last week’s G20 summit.

A large-scale land operation could strain ties with the US, which arms and trains the Syrian Democratic Forces to fight Isis. It could also affect relations with Russia, whose troops have operated in areas controlled by the YPG since 2019, when Turkey last sent in troops to expel militants.

US support for the SDF, which is dominated by the YPG militia, has plagued Turkey’s relationship with its Nato ally. Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist organisation because of its links with the PKK, which has waged a four-decade insurgency for autonomy inside Turkey and is listed as a terror group by Washington. In his remarks to reporters Erdoğan also expressed frustration with Russia for not doing more to “clean up the terrorists” in northern Syria.

Turkey has invaded Syria four times since 2016 to fight the YPG and Isis and now controls a large tract of the Arab state’s territory. It is one of the last backers of opposition fighters who have sought to topple President Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by Russia and Iran, since the country’s civil war began in 2011.

On Monday, a child, a teacher was killed after Kurdish shelling hit a school in the border town of Karkamiş, said interior minister Süleyman Soylu. A 5-year-old child was also killed when his home was struck, and an MP from the opposition Republican People’s party wrote on Twitter that the child was his nephew. Soylu added that a pregnant woman who had been initially counted in the death toll was being treated in hospital.

The American embassy in Ankara expressed condolences over the loss of life in Karkamış and expressed rare US criticism of its Kurdish allies. “We strongly condemn this violence and unjustifiable attack,” it said in a post on Twitter.

Turkey’s defence ministry tweeted that the armed forces were “responding to the attack in multitude”.

The ministry said it had “neutralised” several militants in the weekend’s air strikes, including senior fighters. Syrian Kurdish administrative officials said on Sunday that 11 civilians and 15 Syrian government soldiers were killed by the bombardment, but did not say how many of its fighters died.

Erdoğan has also denied that a military campaign is aimed at garnering support ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. His government enjoys broad backing for its military operations against the PKK, and another land offensive into Syria could boost support for Erdoğan’s ruling party, which has faced a steep decline in popularity over its handling of a crisis-ridden economy.

Both the PKK and Syrian Kurdish groups denied involvement in the Istanbul bomb attack on November 13.

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