Tuesday 16 January 2018

Turkey calls for joint ground force as Syria tension grows

Tanks stationed at a Turkish army position near the Oncupinar crossing gate close to the town of Kilis, south central Turkey, fire towards the Syria border yesterday.
Tanks stationed at a Turkish army position near the Oncupinar crossing gate close to the town of Kilis, south central Turkey, fire towards the Syria border yesterday.

Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul

Turkey is asking allies including the United States to take part in a joint ground operation in Syria, as a Moscow-backed government advance nears its borders, raising the possibility of direct confrontation between the Nato member and Russia.

A large-scale joint ground operation is still unlikely: Washington has ruled out a major offensive.

But the request shows how swiftly a Russian-backed advance in recent weeks has transformed a conflict that has drawn in most regional and global powers.

Syrian government forces made fresh advances yesterday, as did Kurdish militia, both at the expense of rebels whose positions have been collapsing in recent weeks in the face of the Russian-backed onslaught.

The offensive, supported by Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias as well as Russian air strikes, has brought the Syrian army to within 25km of Turkey's frontier, while Kurdish fighters, regarded by Turkey as hostile insurgents, have extended their presence along the border.

Turkish artillery returned fire into Syria for a fourth straight day yesterday, the defence minister said, targeting the Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara says is being backed by Moscow.

"We want a ground operation. If there is a consensus, Turkey will take part. Without a ground operation, it is impossible to stop this war," a Turkish official told reporters.

"Turkey is not going to have a unilateral ground operation ... We are discussing this with allies."

On Monday, Turkey accused Russia of an "obvious war crime" after missile attacks in northern Syria killed scores of people, and warned the YPG it would face the "harshest reaction" if it tried to capture a town near the Turkish border.

Russian air support for the Syrian government offensive has transformed the balance of power in the five-year-old war in the past three weeks.

World powers meeting in Munich last week agreed to a pause in the fighting, but that is not set to begin until the end of this week and was not signed by the warring Syrian parties.

The UN Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, held talks with Syria's foreign minister yesterday aimed at securing a cessation of hostilities and said Damascus had a duty to let the world body bring in humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, Damascus says its objectives are to recapture Aleppo and seal off the border with Turkey that has served as the main supply route into rebel-held territory for years.

Those would be the government's biggest victories of the war so far and probably end rebel hopes of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad by force.

Kurdish forces continued their push eastwards towards Isil-held territory northeast of Aleppo. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Kurdish-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) - of which the YPG is a part - took a village just west of the town of Marea.

That is the last major settlement before a swathe of territory held by the radical militants stretching east across Syria and into Iraq.

The Syrian army also made advances, with state media saying it had taken two villages north of Aleppo near the town of Tal Rifaat, which fell to the SDF on Monday. With the help of Russian air strikes it also advanced from the government-held coastal city of Latakia, continuing a push into rebel territory and fighting to take the key town of Kansaba.

With hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in areas the government aims to seize, Turkey and others accuse Moscow of deliberately firing on civilian targets such as hospitals to force residents to flee and depopulate territory.

Almost 50 civilians were killed when missiles hit at least five medical facilities and two schools in rebel-held areas on Monday, according to the UN.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: "Our relations [with Turkey] are in a deep crisis. Russia regrets this. We are not the initiators of this."

The advances by the YPG risk creating friction between Turkey and its allies, including the US. Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish militia as an extension of the PKK, which has fought a three-decade insurgency for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey's southeast. But the US sees the YPG as one of few effective ground forces fighting Isil in Syria, and has lent the group military support.

Washington has so far ruled out sending its own ground troops into Syria, apart from small numbers of special forces.

Irish Independent

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