Turkey on standby

QAMISHLI/ANKARA – The head of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said on Wednesday that Turkish military deployments near Kurdish-held areas of northwestern Syria amounted to a “declaration of war” which could trigger clashes within days.

Turkey’s deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus retorted that his country was not declaring war but that its forces would respond to any hostile move by the YPG, which he described as a small-scale army formed by the United States.

The mounting tensions between two US allies in northwestern Syria risk opening yet another front in the multi-sided conflict, in which outside powers were playing ever greater roles. They could also distract the YPG from the US-backed campaign it was spearheading to capture Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa, some 200 km (125 miles) away.

Asked by Reuters whether he expected a conflict with Turkey in northern Syria, where the two sides have exchanged artillery fire in recent days, YPG Commander Sipan Hemo accused Turkey of preparing for a major military campaign in the Aleppo and Afrin area.

“These (Turkish) preparations have reached level of a declaration of war and could lead to the outbreak of actual clashes in the coming days,” he said in emailed comments. “We will not stand idly by against this potential aggression.”

Turkey’s policy in northern Syria had been focussed on containing the growing sway of Kurdish groups that have established autonomous regions since Syria’s war began in 2011.

Ankara said the YPG represented a security threat, seeing it as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which had been fighting an insurgency against the Turkish state for decades.

“This is not a declaration of war. We are making preparations against potential threats,” Mr Kurtulmus told Reuters in an interview. “Their (YPG) primary goal is a threat to Turkey, and if Turkey sees a YPG movement in northern Syria that is a threat to it, it will retaliate in kind.”

President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was ready to carry out ground operations against Kurdish forces in northern Syria along with the rebel forces it backs there if necessary.

“If there is a threat against us, our troops will conduct any operations with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on the ground,” he told France 24 television in an interview shown later on Wednesday.

Turkish forces deployed in northern Syria last year in support of FSA groups in an operation that forced Islamic State away from the border and also drove a wedge between YPG-held areas.

In recent weeks, Turkey has sent reinforcements into the area north of Aleppo, according to Turkey-backed rebel groups who have established control over a section of the Turkish-Syrian frontier with Ankara’s support.

Mr Hemo was last week cited as saying the YPG had a plan to capture that area between the towns of Azaz and Jarablus. Asked about that remark, he described the Turkish intervention as “occupation” of Syrian land, and said the YPG had never “threatened Turkey or its security”.

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