Hopes for Syria ceasefire dim as Turkey shells Kurds

  • AFP, Beirut
  • Updated: Feb 15, 2016 00:25 IST
Protesters try to protect themselves from tear gas during clashes in Istanbul, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, between police forces and people protesting against security operations against Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey. (AP)

Hopes for a ceasefire taking hold this week in Syria dimmed Sunday as Turkey renewed its shelling of Kurdish militants and Washington demanded Moscow end air strikes on rebels.

Tensions over Syria have continued to mount despite the proposal from international powers in Munich on Friday for a “cessation of hostilities” within a week.

Defying US and French calls, Turkey on Sunday carried out a second day of shelling on a Kurdish-Arab alliance advancing in northern Aleppo province, prompting condemnation from Syria’s government.

Turkey says it is targeting Kurdish forces it accuses of links to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

Washington has been working closely with Kurdish forces in northern Syria and the Turkish attacks highlighted tensions within the US-led coalition that is battling the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

Differences were also clear between Washington and Moscow, which is backing international diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syria conflict but has also launched air strikes in support of President Bashar al-Assad, a key ally.

The White House said Sunday that President Barack Obama had urged Moscow end the strikes in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

“President Obama emphasised the importance now of Russia playing a constructive role by ceasing its air campaign against moderate opposition forces in Syria,” the White House said.

Russia has long insisted it is only targeting “terrorist” groups in Syria.

Syria demands UN action

The Turkish shelling in northern Syria has added to an already complicated situation in Aleppo province, where regime forces have been making significant advances with backing from Russian air strikes.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed Kurdish-Arab militia alliance, has also advanced in recent days, seizing the Minnigh airbase and battling to take control of Tal Rifaat, a town held by mostly Islamist opposition fighters that is only 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the Turkish border.

Kurdish forces already control large parts of Syria along the border and Ankara is concerned the SDF will gain new ground.

Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency said the shelling had resumed for a second day on Sunday, with the Turkish army using howitzers on the border to strike Kurdish targets around the Syrian town of Azaz.

It said the shelling was in response to incoming fire and targeted the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, whose People’s Protection Units (YPG) is a key component of the SDF.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, reported Turkish shelling in at least two parts of Aleppo province, including on the Kurdish village of Maryamin, where it said a woman was killed and seven civilians injured, including three children.

It said much of the shelling was focused on the Minnigh base and nearby towns, with at least two SDF fighters killed and seven wounded.

The US State Department had on Saturday urged Ankara to cease the strikes and for the Kurds to stand down.

France joined that call on Sunday, with its foreign ministry urging “an immediate halt to the bombing, both that of the regime and its allies throughout the country and that of Turkey in the Kurdish zones”.

Damascus said the Turkish strikes were a violation of its territory and urged UN Security Council action to “put an end to the crimes of the Turkish regime”.

It also accused Ankara of allowing some 100 gunmen to cross into Syria from Turkey. The Observatory said some 350 Islamist fighters had been allowed to travel through Turkish territory on Saturday to reinforce Islamist rebels in Azaz and Tal Rifaat.

Saudi warplanes deployed

There was fierce fighting between the SDF and Islamist rebels in the western part of Tal Rifaat on Sunday, it said, with at least 17 rebels killed.

The SDF advances came as Syria’s regime piled pressure on rebels throughout northern Aleppo province in a major Russian-backed operation that has displaced tens of thousand of civilians.

The operation has virtually encircled rebel-held eastern Aleppo city and raised concerns among opposition backers including Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Both are members of the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes in Syria, and Riyadh has now deployed warplanes to the Turkish base of Incirlik, a hub already being used by American, British and French coalition planes.

Turkey’s Foreign Minster Mevlut Cavusoglu said Saturday that Ankara and Saudi Arabia could launch a ground operation against IS.

Senior Saudi defence official Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri also said Saturday that there was consensus within the coalition on “the need for group operations.”

He said military experts would meet shortly to decide “the role to be played by each country.”

Echoing Obama’s concerns, a senior figure in the Syrian opposition on Sunday criticised the truce deal as unworkable without an end to Russian strikes.

“What we need is action, and the action I see is that Russia is killing Syrian civilians,” Riad Hijab told the Munich Security Conference.

US Senator John McCain also slammed the deal in Munich, saying it would only empower Moscow’s “military aggression”.

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