Turkish troops shelled Kurdish militia forces based in an enclave in northern Syria Friday, as Turkey defied U.S. calls for restraint and warned that the bombardment signaled the opening stage of an outright invasion.
The Syrian region of Afrin is currently controlled by a Kurdish force known as the Syrian Kurdish YPG, or People’s Protection Units, which has played a key role in the U.S.-backed fight against ISIS. Over the past few days, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to crush the YPG militia in Afrin, following a strengthening of the Kurdish grip over large swathes of northern Syria in recent months.
The United States has called on Turkey to focus on fighting the terror group ISIS instead, and warned that an attack on Kurdish forces could destabilize the region. But as of Friday, Turkey didn’t appear to be heeding U.S. warnings.
“The operation has actually de facto started with cross-border shelling,” Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said, according to Reuters, while adding that no troops have yet crossed over the Syrian border into Afrin.
The YPG remained defiant, saying it was prepared for a Turkish onslaught.
“YPG is ready to confront Turkish troops,” the YPG said in a statement. “If they dare to attack, we are ready to bury them one by one in Afrin.”
Reuters TV captured images of Turkish artillery on Friday morning firing into Afrin. The YPG claimed Turkey had launched 70 shells at Kurdish villages as of Friday morning.
Following all the threats and reports of artillery fire, the U.S. State Department circulated a briefing transcript of an unnamed “Senior State Department Official” saying the U.S. has warned Turkey that “the kind of threats or activities which these initial reports may be referring to” against Afrin “are destabilizing.”
Earlier this week, Turkish President Erdoğan slammed the U.S. for planning to build a 30,000-strong army in Syria drawn from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated militia that was a key ground asset in the U.S.-led war against ISIS.
Erdoğan called the proposal a “terror army” on Turkey’s doorstep — and threatened to “strangle” the militia “before it’s even born.” The Turkish president’s rage was met with a quasi-apology from the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said Thursday it was a matter of miscommunication, adding that the U.S. owed Turkey an “explanation.”