Turkey resumes air strikes on Syria after Putin call

Turkey resumed air strikes on the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin late on Thursday after four days of not flying over the besieged northwest Syrian district following the shooting down of a Russian fighter by Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib province.

The resumption of Turkish air strikes on Afrin came hours after a telephone call between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which, the Kremlin said, they discussed military coordination in Syria.

The pro-Kurdish Hawar News Agency said on Friday the civilian death toll from the Turkish offensive against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces had risen to 149 after Amina Shahin was killed in an air strike overnight on the city of Afrin.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said this week there had been no civilian casualties at all as a result of his country’s operation in Afrin.

“Turkish warplanes are continuing air raids on different areas of Afrin,” said Mohammed Bilo, a journalist in Afrin. “Strikes continue, and they hit the centre of the city,” said Jihad Abdo, another journalist in Afrin.

After more than two weeks of aerial bombardment, the strikes stopped on Sunday, a day after Turkish-backed rebels shot down a Russian warplane over Idlib, to the south of Afrin, where Russian-backed Syrian government troops are engaged in an offensive to retake the province.

Abdo said the city of Afrin had returned to relatively normality by Wednesday with people going to work and shopping for goods, but said Turkish forces had kept up an artillery bombardment of border areas.

Turkey says it aims to rid Afrin of the YPG, which it says is part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been waging an armed campaign inside Turkey for more than three decades.

Turkey, the European Union and the United States all list the PKK as a terrorist organisation, but Washington and its European allies have backed the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) – made up mainly of YPG fighters - as the most effective force combating Islamic State and together they have pushed the extreme jihadists out of most of eastern Syria.

The United States has hundreds of special forces troops aiding and training the SDF in eastern Syria, but none in Afrin. Washington has called for Turkey to show restraint in Afrin and not to attack the YPG and SDF elsewhere.

Meanwhile, both Iran and the Syrian government have criticised the Afrin offensive, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani calling on Turkey to halt the operation.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Oleg Syromolotov on Wednesday warned of further destabilisation of the region, but blamed the United States for backing the Kurds.

“The developments of the situation in Afrin, provoked by the actions of the United States among other things, can lead to even greater destabilisation in this region,” Syromolotov said.

While Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, Ankara sees the Kurds as an existential threat. Analysts said Turkey and Russia might have done a deal in which Ankara allowed Russian-backed Syrian government forces to take the rebel-held province of Idlib in return for a free hand in Afrin. Russia effectively controls the skies over Afrin.

“Without coordination with all parties to the conflict, Turkey can't proceed with the operation on its own,” said Timur Akhmetov, an Ankara-based researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council.

He said an incident on Wednesday in which U.S. forces were reported to have killed 100 or more Syrian government troops who attacked SDF positions in eastern Syria showed that President Bashar Assad was willing to act without Russian involvement and that similar acts could spark an escalation elsewhere.

The Syrian government attack in Deir al-Zor province should be seen also as a warning to Turkish leaders who have said the Kurdish-held town of Manbij, where U.S. troops are also based, is next on their list of targets after Afrin.

“The U.S. slapped the Assad regime in Deir al-Zor, but delivered its message on Manbij to Turkey: the Kurdish-led SDF is a U.S. ally, and the U.S. will defend its partners in Syria,” Ceng Sagnic, co-editor of Turkey Scope and coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Programme at the Moshe Dayan Center in Tel Aviv, told Ahval.

The U.S. coalition commander Lieutenant General Paul Funk said on a visit to Manbij frontlines on Wednesday: “You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves.”

Meanwhile, the Syrian government and Russia have allowed the YPG to send reinforcements to Afrin from eastern Syria through a corridor that is the only part of the enclave not surrounded by Turkish troops.

But the U.S. military said any forces moving from Kurdish-controlled eastern Syria to Afrin would no longer receive coalition support.

U.S. officials have worried the diversion of YPG and SDF forces to fight Turkey in Afrin will hamper efforts to wipe out the remnants of Islamic State near the Syrian border with Iraq.

“The U.S. military is not in a position to stop groups from moving from the SDF zone to Afrin. However, the SDF is expected to continue functioning at a high level, so it is disadvantageous for too many forces to leave the SDF zone for Afrin,” said Nicholas A. Heras, Middle East security analyst at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security.