Turkish forces clash with Kurdish militia one day after deadly airstrikes

Kareem Shaheen in Istanbul
The US had expressed ‘deep concern’ over Tuesday’s air raids and said they were not authorized by the coalition. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

Clashes have erupted between Turkish border guards and Kurdish militiamen, a day after a series of airstrikes ordered by Ankara threatened to escalate a protracted conflict along its southern border with Syria.

A war monitor and a spokeswoman for the Kurdish paramilitary forces confirmed the exchange of fire, which occurred near the town of Darbasiyeh in Syria’s north-east. There were no conclusive immediate reports of casualties.

Turkey on Wednesday carried out airstrikes for the second day in a row against Kurdish paramilitary groups, a day after it struck targets in Syria and Iraq that killed at least 20 – as possible as many as 70 – fighters.

Ankara intervened militarily in Syria last year, launching a large-scale operation that involved Turkish soldiers and tanks along with Syrian rebels to clear a stretch of territory from Islamic State fighters as well as to limit the westward expansion of the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), which seeks an autonomous zone in northern Syria.

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Turkey considers the YPG as the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a separatist group fighting an insurgency against the Turkish state, and sees the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous zone on its southern border as a national security threat. It also accuses the YPG of forcibly displacing Arab civilians, a charge the group denies.

But the conflict with the YPG has strained relations with the United States, whose coalition has backed the Kurdish militants’ advance against Isis in the region, which has led to the ousting of the terror group from wide stretches of territory near its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.

Turkey has urged the US to back a plan to liberate Raqqa using primarily Arab forces, but Washington sees the Kurdish forces and their Arab auxiliaries as the most well-prepared to spearhead an assault on the city, which has languished under Isis control and coalition airstrikes for years.

The US had expressed “deep concern” over Tuesday’s air raids and said they were not authorized by the coalition. The strikes killed over 70 militants, according to the Turkish military, and targeted positions in Sinjar in Iraq as well as northeastern Syria. Kurdish sources said that 20 fighters died in the attack.

Russia also expressed “serious concern” about the strikes, which were also condemned by the Syrian and Iraqi governments.

“In a situation where the war on terror in Iraq and Syria is far from over, such actions clearly do not contribute to the consolidation of anti-terrorist efforts,” the Russian foreign ministry said.

The YPG said there were clashes with Turkey-backed rebels on Wednesday.

It was unclear why the escalation occurred this week, days after a referendum in Turkey that gave sweeping new powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was narrowly approved by Turkish voters.

Erdogan said in an interview with Reuters that the strikes on Sinjar were aimed at denying a base to the PKK, and that Turkey had informed its counterparts in the coalition of its plans. Turkey’s defense minister said the PKK would not be allowed to establish a presence in northern Iraq.

The Turkish military had said the camps were hit to prevent the transport of explosives and munitions into Turkey, and European minister Omar Celik said the camps posed a threat to Turkey.

Nasreen Abdullah, a spokeswoman for the YPJ, the all-female unit of the YPG, said Wednesday’s clashes erupted after Turkish border guards fired on a demonstration taking place in the border town of Darbasiyeh against the renewed airstrikes, and Kurdish forces fired back. There was no independent confirmation of the account.

She accused the Turkish government of sparking the latest clashes in an attempt to distract from its weakened position after the slim referendum victory.

“We don’t want to open a front with Turkey because the situation in Syria is complicated and we’re fighting a terror group that is a threat to all mankind,” she said, referring to Isis. “This is an act against the Kurdish people and against plans or a resolution in Syria.”

“The coalition must take a stand,” she added. “Words are not enough.”

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