Eli Ridder | SYRIA
Thousands have been displaced by the fourth day of Turkey’s military assault on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin located in northern Syria.
Some 5,000 civilians have fled border communities ahead of advancing Turkish forces, according to a United Nations report released on Tuesday.
While the death toll has been difficult to confirm due to limited information from both Ankara and Kurdish authorities, the reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that 25 Syrian rebels, 26 Kurdish fighters and 24 civilians have been killed.
Twenty-two of the civilian deaths have been via Turkish air and artillery strikes and two due to Kurdish fire, the Observatory explains, despite Ankara denying that its forces harmed any civilians.
Two Turkish soldiers have been killed thus far in the conflict, according to BBC news agency.
United States Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that he was taking Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns” seriously, but urged Ankara to “exercise restraint” in rhetoric and military action.
Russia, a close ally of the Syrian regime, and Turkey agreed that Syria’s territorial sovereignty should ultimately be respected.
Moscow had withdrawn observer forces from Afrin allowing Turkey to carry out its air offensive when the invasion started, a move that came after talks between the Kremlin and Ankara.
The United Nations made clear it was ready and willing to deliver aid to the 50,000 people in Afrin should it be needed as world powers, including the United States, called on Turkey to exercise restraint in the offensive as not to risk causing a major crisis.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan has promised to “crush” the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG militia, which has control over 250 miles of Syria’s northern border and large swathes of the country’s north, largely from fighting back Deash (IS).
Ankara believes the YPG is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has been fighting for Kurdish independence from Turkey for three decades in its southeast.
“We are determined Afrin will be sorted out, we will take no step back,” Mr. Erdogan said in a televised speech on Monday, also claiming that Turkey reached an agreement with Russia regarding the offensive.
The YPG, part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, is a crucial ground force of a United States-led coalition fighting so-called Islamic State in Syria and has denied any direct links with PKK in Turkey, an assertion backed by Washington.
Thus far, Turkey has condemned the U.S. for supporting and supplying the YPG with arms.
Rising tensions between the two NATO allies has caused condemnation from Washington.
Syria’s government has made clear a Turkish invasion would be considered an act of aggression, and threatened to engage militarily with Turkey should there be any offensive, but there has no known involvement from Damascus at this time.
In the past, Washington has backed Syrian rebel groups but has since backed off from supporting the militias fighting the forces loyal and allied to President Bashar al-Assad.
The U.S. policy is still to have Mr. al-Assad removed as Syria’s leader.
The United States has recently been working with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to create a border security force along the Syrian border with inaugural training classes already said to have started.
The conflict so far
Turkish troops began an invasion on Saturday, and was soon reinforced by allied Syrian militias in a combined air and ground offensive.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Tuesday that the allied rebel militias had captured the “strategic” village of Hammam, and started to return civilians eight previously “liberated” villages and rural zones.
Mr. Erdogan launched the Afrin assault, or Operation Olive Branch, soon after reports released saying the United States was training YPG forces to form a “border security force”.
Binali Yildirim, prime minister of Turkey, elaborated in saying the country wanted a 19-mile-deep “safe zone” along its border with Syria.
There are an estimated 10,000 Syrian rebels fighting with Turkish forces, taking on between 8,000 to 10,000 YPG fighters in Afrin, according to numbers from Ankara.
Turkish military forces are utilizing German-manufactured Leopard tanks in the Afrin offensive, resulting in politicians in Berlin condemning the NATO ally’s use of the vehicles.
Image of Turkish tanks from Haburturk.