Turkey launched air strikes in Syria and Iraq overnight targeting Kurdish militants in attacks that risk escalating tensions in the volatile region.
Turkish fighter jets pounded bases and other sites belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), across Turkey’s borders, the defence ministry said. At least 11 civilians were killed in Syria, according to a spokesman for a Kurdish militia, while a war-monitoring group put the death toll at 65 people.
The operation came a week after Turkey blamed the PKK for a bomb attack in Istanbul that killed six people, and the ministry’s statement cited Ankara’s right to self-defence in carrying out the assault.
The ministry also said it had destroyed 89 targets, including shelters and ammunition depots, and that senior members of the PKK “were among those neutralised”.
The PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organisation in Europe and the US, denied that it was behind the Istanbul bombing. The group has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.
Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu wrote on Twitter that “it’s reckoning time” after the military began its operation late on Saturday.
Turkey regularly conducts air and small-scale land operations in northern Iraq, where the PKK is based. The army has also staged three full-scale incursions into Syria since 2016 to fight the YPG, which Ankara considers an extension of the PKK.
As a result, Turkey controls several thousand square kilometres inside the Arab state where it backs remnants of Syrian rebels who have been fighting Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s decade-long civil war.
It is unclear if Turkey would carry out further air strikes or conduct a land incursion in retaliation for the bomb attack. The defence ministry said in a tweet that the air operation had been “successfully completed”.
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly threatened a fresh offensive this year to push back the Kurdish militants from the border. Another large-scale military operation in Syria could rally support for Erdoğan’s government among Turkish nationalists ahead of elections scheduled for next year. But Erdoğan was unable to secure a green light for another ground offensive from Russia and Iran, which support Assad, in recent months.
The US, which arms and trains the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in its campaign against Isis, also opposes further Turkish military interventions in Syria. The US has about 800 troops in north-east Syria where they support the SDF.
Brett McGurk, the White House co-ordinator for the Middle East and north Africa, said after the Turkish air strikes that Washington wanted “to make sure that nothing is done to destabilise the very difficult situation in north-east Syria”.
“We want to try and maintain stability there and obviously we do want to make sure that the border with Turkey is secure,” McGurk told a security conference in Manama, Bahrain.
Later on Sunday, Kurdish militants in the Tal Rifat region fired a rocket launcher at a police station at a border crossing outside the town of Kilis, Turkey, wounding eight security officers, Turkey’s interior ministry said.
Washington’s support for the SDF has been a long-running point of friction between the Nato allies. Turkey’s interior minister called the US a “murderer” after the bombing in the heart of Istanbul last week.
SDF spokesman Farhad Shami said on Twitter that 11 civilians, including a journalist, and one fighter and two guards were killed by the strikes in north-east Syria. Several Syrian soldiers were killed in the air strikes, Syria’s official state news agency SANA quoted a military source as saying, in the areas surrounding Hasakeh and Aleppo.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 65 people had been killed in the air strikes as more people died from wounds they had sustained and bodies were found under the rubble of buildings.
In Iraq, targets included Qandil, Asos and Hakurk, Turkey’s defence ministry said. The PKK is known to have a presence in these areas with the Qandil mountains having long served as the PKK’s headquarters.
In north-east Syria, targets included Tal Rifat, Cizire and Derik, the ministry said. Shami said the strikes had hit Kobani, a predominantly Kurdish border town controlled by the SDF, and villages hosting internally displaced people.
The SDF controls about a fifth of Syria in the country’s north-east with an army estimated to include about 100,000 fighters.