Turkey’s Worst Day Yet in Syria Offensive: At Least 7 Soldiers Killed
Posted February 4, 2018 1:14 p.m. EST
KOBANI, Syria — Turkey’s military suffered its worst day yet in the two-week offensive in Afrin, Syria, when at least seven soldiers were killed and a tank was destroyed in the fighting, official Turkish news outlets reported Sunday.
But the losses may be higher, according to other reports.
Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led militia defending the city in northern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, said its fighters had killed eight Turkish army soldiers in two episodes northeast of the city on Saturday. Two tanks were destroyed, he said.
An independent monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that two tanks had been destroyed and that 19 Turkish soldiers and allied Syrian militiamen had been killed in total Saturday.
It was the single biggest one-day loss for the Turkish forces since they pushed into Syria on Jan. 20, vowing to take the enclave from the Syrian Democratic Forces, which Turkey describes as terrorists. The losses bring to at least 14 the number of Turkish soldiers killed in the offensive so far.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in a statement on his Twitter account that Turkey would retaliate for the losses. “They will pay for this twice as much,” he wrote.
The deaths occurred on the same day that a Russian warplane was shot down over Idlib, about 50 miles south of Afrin, and the pilot, who had apparently parachuted out, was killed on the ground.
An affiliate of al-Qaida in Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, claimed responsibility, broadcasting footage of the plane’s downing. Elements of that same group are among the Free Syrian Army militias, many of them Islamist extremists, who are allied with the Turks and fighting in Afrin, according to the group and to analysts in the area.
Russia, which controls Afrin’s airspace, has allowed Turkey to operate its air force there for the offensive.
In a speech to supporters Saturday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said his forces would reach the city of Afrin soon. “Thank God the mountains there started to be taken,” Erdogan said, according to the state-run news agency Anadolu. “Now we are moving ahead to Afrin, almost there.”
The city is surrounded by mountainous countryside, where most of the fighting has so far occurred.
Anadolu quoted the Turkish military as confirming the losses of seven troops and one tank. The Defense Ministry said one soldier had been killed in Turkey, in what it called a cross-border attack by the Syrian militants.
Turkey describes the Syrian forces as being with the PKK, the initials of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party from eastern Turkey. Western and independent observers say the Syrian forces in Afrin are mostly from the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a Kurdish force that controls a large part of northern Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are close allies of the U.S. military in Syria, but U.S. forces are not in Afrin. While the State Department designates the PKK as a terrorist group, it does not consider the YPG to be one.
The YPG and YPJ, its female partner force, have acknowledged the loss of 120 of their fighters in Afrin, and hospital officials there have reported 101 civilians in the Afrin area killed since the campaign began.
Turkish forces, including more than 10,000 Syrian fighters from numerous groups in the Free Syrian Army, have attacked Afrin from the west, north and east at 15 different points, but they have not yet managed to enter the city.
Turkey’s air force has launched numerous airstrikes, and its army artillery has supported the ground offensive, which includes Turkish soldiers as well as Syrian militants.
The Russian military fired cruise missiles from ships in the Mediterranean at rebel positions near Idlib in retaliation for the downing of its aircraft, claiming that it had killed 30 militants from the al-Qaida group in the area. A Russian Defense Ministry statement said it had based that estimate on radio intercepts.
A spokeswoman for the State Department denied speculation that the United States had provided shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft weapons to groups in Syria.
“The United States has never provided Manpad missiles to any group in Syria, and we are deeply concerned that such weapons are being used,” the spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said, referring to man-portable air-defense systems.
“The solution to the violence is a return to the Geneva process as soon as possible,” she said, referring to peace talks on Syria. “We call on Russia to live up to its commitments in that regard.”
Turkey has repeatedly threatened to carry the fight against the YPG from Afrin into Manbij, about 80 miles to the west of Afrin, which is the western limit of where U.S. forces operate in cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces. Their allies the Manbij Military Council control the area.
The U.S. military has said it will support its Kurdish and Arab allies in Manbij and elsewhere in northern Syria, which has infuriated the Turks, a NATO ally of the United States.