Turkey military campaign could \'tip balance\' in Syria and whole region

Friday 24/07/2015
Tensions are running high

ANKARA - Turkish tanks shelled Kurdish-held villages in northern Syria, rebels and activists said Monday, as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned that a military campaign by Ankara could "change the balance" in the region.

With its warplanes also hitting Kurdish targets in neighbouring northern Iraq again on Sunday, Turkey called an extraordinary NATO meeting for Tuesday over its cross-border "anti-terror" offensive against Kurdish separatists and Islamic State jihadists.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey was poised to join coalition air strikes against the Islamic State group having agreed to open its airbases to the US forces.

"Turkey is going to actively join the air attacks," he said on a visit to Portugal, with officials hinting the first US bombing raids on IS from Turkish air bases could start in early August.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg defended Turkey's right to defend itself but told the BBC "of course self-defence has to be proportionate".

But he cautioned Turkey about burning bridges with the Kurds. "For years there has been progress to try to find a peaceful political solution," he told Norwegian state broadcaster NRK.

"It is important not to renounce that... because force will never solve the conflict in the long term."

However, a Turkish official said on condition of anonymity that "operations will, if needed, continue until the PKK terror command centres... and all depots to store arms to be used against Turkey are destroyed".

The Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) -- which pushed IS out of the Syrian flashpoint of Kobane early this year with the help of Western air strikes -- said Turkish tanks hit its positions overnight and those of allied Arab rebels in the village of Zur Maghar in Aleppo province.

The "heavy tank fire" wounded four members of the allied rebel force and several villagers, the YPG -- which Turkey accuses of being allied to its outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) -- said in a statement.

But Turkish officials denied deliberately targeting Syrian Kurds and said it was responding to fire from the Syrian side of the border.

"The bombing of the village is out of the question," a foreign ministry official told AFP. "Turkey has its rules of engagement. If there's fire from the Syrian side, it will be retaliated in kind."

As the bombardments were going on, Davutoglu told a group of Turkish newspaper editors that Ankara's intervention would "change the balance" in the region, but ruled out sending ground troops into Syria.

He denied Turkey was worried by Kurdish gains against jihadists in northern Syria, pointing to Ankara's good relations with the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq.

Turkey has given a green light to the United States to use its Incirlik air base to attack IS targets after months of tough negotiations.

Davutoglu said the agreement met the concerns of Ankara, which had been pressing for a no-fly zone, "to a certain extent", according to the Hurriyet daily.

"Air cover is important, the air protection for the Free Syrian Army and other moderate elements fighting Daesh," he said, referring to IS by an Arabic acronym.

"If we will not send ground forces -- and that we will not do -- then certain elements that cooperate with us on the ground must be protected," Davutoglu added.

Ankara sources hinted that the first US bombing missions out of Incirlik could start in early August with "elements of the Turkish Air Forces... deployed with the same objective in these operations."

Tensions are running high in Turkey, with police dispersing nightly protests in Istanbul and other major cities denouncing IS and the government's policies on Syria.

Davutoglu ordered the air strikes and artillery barrages after IS violence spilled over into Turkey last Monday with a suicide bombing in a town close to the Syrian border that killed 32 people.

This incensed Turkey's Kurds, who have long accused the government of colluding with IS, allegations it denies.

Protests raged over the weekend in a Kurdish and leftist district of Istanbul, leaving one policeman dead, as 900 people with alleged links to IS, the PKK and other leftist organisations were rounded up, officials said.

Ankara started its campaign Friday by shelling IS targets in Syria but then expanded it to air strikes on PKK rebels in northern Iraq who are bitterly opposed to the jihadists.

The strikes seemed to torpedo long-running peace talks, with the separatists saying conditions were no longer in place to observe its ceasefire.

The PKK's military wing, the People's Defence Forces (HPG), claimed a car bomb attack that killed two Turkish soldiers on Sunday in Diyarbakir province.

It said three of its own fighters had been killed in Turkish air strikes Saturday, after one was killed in the first wave.

Two Turkish policemen were shot dead Wednesday while sleeping in their homes in the southeast, in murders also claimed by the PKK.

Meanwhile Turkey, NATO's only majority Muslim member, called an extraordinary meeting of NATO ambassadors Tuesday for talks on its military operations.

The White House backs its right to bomb the PKK which the US also categorises as a terror group.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Davutoglu "not to give up the peace process with the Kurds."