Syrian rebels backed by Turkish military advanced under intense bombardment towards a major northern town in Syria held by Kurdish-led forces, as a part of a wide military operation aiming at clearing Turkish border of “terror threat.”
The confrontation between Turkey-backed Syrian rebels and Kurdish militias fighting the Islamic State group has escalated as both sides race to be the first to expel the armed group from the northern Syrian city of al-Bab.
Fighting between the Turkey-backed fighters and the Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) was concentrated on Saturday near the town of Tel Rifaat, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Ahmad Aaraj – member of the Syrian National Democratic Coalition, which is allied with the Kurds – said Turkish tanks crossed the border near the town of Marea and were heading toward Tel Rifaat.
The Syrian Observatory said 13 Turkey-backed rebels and three SDF fighters were killed.
Statements from the Kurdish fighters on Saturday said an intense attack was being waged by Turkey-backed forces with tanks and heavy shelling.
“The Euphrates Shield Operation will drive the YPG out of Tal Rifaat and the surrounding area before moving eastwards towards al-Bab,” Abdurahman Harkoush, a former spokesperson for the Army of Islam, said.
The Observatory said there was heavy fighting on Saturday on the frontline between Turkish-backed forces and Kurdish fighters allied to the U.S.-backed SDF militia west of Marea. Marea is a town in Turkey-backed rebel territory on the way to al-Bab.
The Observatory said around a dozen fighters on both sides have died in the past three days of escalating fighting.
If Turkey-backed rebels push further south through the current battleground with Kurdish fighters, they will come into contact with territory controlled by Syrian government and allied forces north of the city of Aleppo.
In the past days, Turkey launched dozens of air strikes on the American-backed Kurdish fighters, highlighting the conflicting agendas of NATO members Ankara and Washington in an increasingly complex battlefield.
Turkey said between 160-200 Kurds were killed in the strikes.
“They say, ‘Don’t go to al-Bab’. We are obliged to, we will go there,” Erdogan said in a speech in the northwest province of Bursa. “We have to prepare a region cleansed from terror,” Erdogan said, referring to Turkey’s ongoing military operation called Euphrates Shield.
Erdogan also said Turkey would do what was necessary with its coalition partners in Syria’s Raqqa – ISIS’s main stronghold in the country – but would not work with the Kurdish militias.
“If the coalition forces are ready to move together, we will do what is necessary against Daesh in Raqqa too. But not together with the PYD or YPG.”
Erdogan said Turkey would “not take terror organizations along with us”.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Friday Turkey’s activities in Syria are aimed at destroying “terrorist organisations” and securing its border, adding all operations are discussed with coalition partners.
The PKK and its Syrian offshoot the PYD are both listed as terrorist groups by Turkey although the U.S. and EU only view the PKK as a terrorist organization.
The United States has backed the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their fight against Islamic State, infuriating Ankara, which sees the umbrella group’s dominant YPG militia as an extension of Kurdish PKK militants who have waged a three-decade insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
Turkey, a major backer of the insurgency against Bashar al-Assad, entered the Syrian conflict in August, using its armor and air power to help Free Syrian Army rebel groups take territory near the border held by Islamic State.
The rebels have since extended those gains and now control an area of roughly 1,270 square km (490 square miles) in northern Syria.
Turkey fears the YPG will try to connect three de facto autonomous Kurdish cantons that have emerged during the five-year war to create a Kurdish-run enclave in northern Syria, stoking the separatist ambitions of Kurds on its own soil.
While Turkey’s initial focus was on driving Islamic State from Jarablus, much of its efforts have been spent on stopping the advance of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Its intervention therefore also aimed to prevent Kurdish forces from gaining more ground.
The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.