- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2018

Turkish forces hammered the Kurdish-controlled district of Afrin, in northern Syria’s Aleppo governorate, with mortars and heavy artillery on Friday, in what could be the opening salvos of a large-scale offensive by Ankara on the district.

Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli confirmed that Turkish forces had begun shelling areas inside Afrin, a reputed stronghold of the The Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The YPG is the armed faction of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, which Turkey has labelled as a terrorist organization.

“The operation has actually de facto started with cross-border shelling,” he told Reuters, noting that no Turkish troops have advanced from their positions surrounding Afrin into the besieged district.

Ankara claims it has reached a deal with Moscow to coordinate its operations in Afrin with ongoing Russian military support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

On Friday, Russian military adviser units in and around Aleppo began pulling back from the governorate en masse, in preparation for the Turkish assault. Ahmet Berat Conkar, head of the Turkish delegation NATO, on Friday confirmed the Russian withdrawal and its ties to the Ankara’s plans for Afrin.

“Russia is taking steps to move its forces in Afrin away from the areas where there might be clashes [during Turkey’s operation],” he told Al Jazzera.

Ankara has spend the last several weeks amassing weapons and troops around Afrin, raising tensions in Syria over a possible incursion of Turkish forces into the district.

Earlier this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to destroy a 30,000-man border security force in Syria, trained and equipped by Washington, characterizing it as a “terror army” designed to infringe on the country’s sovereignty in the region.

That American-trained and equipped border security force reportedly includes a significant contingent of YPG fighters. YPG units — many of which hailed from Afrin — also played a large role in the U.S.-backed militia force, dubbed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that flushed Islamic State from its Syrian capital of Raqqa last year.

A bombing campaign against Afrin Kurds in September, targeting suspected YPG redoubts in northern Syria threatened to delay the SDF offensive against Raqqa, as thousands of Syrian Kurds abandoned the SDF push to fight in Afrin.

A Turkish military move into Afrin could further complicate the Trump administration’s already convoluted Syria policy, which denies helping Syrian Kurds carve out an enclave in the northern part of the country but continues to back a border security force with YPG participation.

“We have been completely transparent with Turkey about what we’re trying to do,” said one senior U.S. official, who added that current American policymakers are fully aware of Ankara’s anger over the U.S. military’s ongoing training of the border security force — dubbed the Syrian Defense Force of which roughly 60 percent consists of Kurds.

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