Turkey steps up strikes on militants as conflict escalates in Syria

By Daren Butler, Tuvan Gumrukcu and kilo

ISTANBUL (Reuters) -Turkish security forces attacked Kurdish militants in northern Syria and eastern Turkey, and Ankara said it will continue to destroy their capabilities across the region as conflict escalated on Friday nearly a week after a bomb attack in Ankara.

After U.S. forces shot down a Turkish drone in northern Syria on Thursday, Turkey confirmed the incident but assigned no blame, indicating it may want to contain any tensions with its NATO ally.

The military “neutralised” 26 Kurdish militants in northern Syria overnight in retaliation for a rocket attack on a Turkish base, the defence ministry said. Turkey typically uses the term “neutralise” to mean kill.

The rocket attack on the base, by the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, killed one Turkish police officer and wounded seven officers and soldiers in northwest Syria’s Dabiq area on Thursday evening, Ankara said.

Turkey also conducted air strikes and destroyed 30 militant targets elsewhere in northern Syria on Thursday night, including an oil well, a storage facility and shelters, the defence ministry said.

On Friday, the ministry said Turkey’s military had conducted another round of air strikes in northern Syria and destroyed 15 other militant targets where it said militants were believed to be. It did not say where in northern Syria the strikes, carried out at 1900 GMT, had hit.

“As has been done in Iraq, all the capabilities and revenue sources developed by the terrorist organisation in Syria will continue to be destroyed in a systematic way,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

In Turkey, two Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants were “neutralised” in eastern Agri province in a clash with commandos during an operation with combat drone and attack helicopter support, Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said in a statement.

He said counter-terror police detained 75 people suspected of links to the PKK in an operation across 11 provinces.

The PKK previously claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bombing in Ankara that left the two attackers dead and wounded two police officers. Turkey said the attackers came from Syria but the Syrian SDF forces denied this.


Turkey lists the YPG as a terrorist organisation and says it is indistinguishable from the PKK, which has fought an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.

The United States and European Union deem the PKK as terrorists, but not the YPG.

The YPG is also at the heart of the SDF forces in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State militants. U.S. support for them has long caused tension with Turkey.

The SDF said Turkish attacks had killed eight people since the Ankara bombing.

Underscoring the tension, the Pentagon said the United States had on Thursday shot down an armed Turkish drone that was operating near its troops in Syria, the first time Washington has brought down an aircraft of NATO ally Turkey.

A Pentagon spokesman said Turkish drones were seen carrying out air strikes in Hasakah, northeast Syria, and one drone that came within less than half a kilometre (0.3 miles) from U.S. troops, was deemed a threat and shot down by F-16 aircraft.

The Turkish foreign ministry statement said one of Turkey’s drones was lost during operations against Kurdish militants in northeast Syria due to “different technical evaluations” with third parties on the ground.

Without citing a specific country, it said it was working with the relevant parties on the ground to improve the functioning of non-conflict mechanisms on the ground.

Later on Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan held a call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss the downing of the drone, a Turkish Foreign Ministry source said.

“During the call, Minister Fidan conveyed to his counterpart Blinken in strong terms that, as an ally, the United States must stop working together with the YPG terrorist organisation in the north of Syria,” the source said.

Fidan also told Blinken that Turkey’s military operations in Syria would continue, the source said. The two ministers agreed to work on non-conflict mechanisms between the allies in Syria and Iraq in a way “that will not pose an obstacle to our counter-terrorism battle” after the drone was downed, the source added.

A State Department spokesperson said Blinken highlighted the need for Washington and Ankara to “coordinate and deconflict” their activities on the call.

Ankara, which has said all PKK and YPG targets in Syria and Iraq ARE now “legitimate targets” for its forces, said on Thursday a ground operation into Syria was one option it could consider.

Turkey has mounted several previous incursions into northern Syria against the YPG.

(Reporting by Daren Butler, Tuvan Gumrukcu, and Huseyin Hayatsever; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, Nick Macfie, Andrew Heavens and Sandra Maler)