Russian forces withdrawn from Afrin, as Turkey begins ground operations

Russian forces withdrawn from Afrin, as Turkey begins ground operations
Russia has withdrawn its troops from Afrin -
under fire from Turkish jets - as Ankara announces the start of an offensive to capture the Syrian town from Kurdish forces.
3 min read
20 January, 2018
Syrian rebels are taking part in the Afrin assault [AFP]
Russia said Saturday it has pulled its troops out of the contested Afrin, as Turkey begins a major offensive to dislodge a Kurdish militia from the northern Syrian town.

Ankara launched air strikes in Afrin moments after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of operations to capture Afrin from Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).

Pictures shared on social media showed smoke billowing from Afrin as Turkish jets fired on - and around - the northern Syrian town, when "Operation Olive Branch" began at 5pm.

Turkish television focused heavily on the operation, showing Turkish troops and armour being deployed to the front.

Calm for calm

Russia's ministry of defence said it was withdrawing troops from Afrin "to prevent potential provocation and exclude the threat to the life and well-being of Russian military".

The country's state news agency later confirmed that troops had pulled out all its troops.

Turkish and Syrian rebel troops reportedly began to move towards Afrin as shells and missiles hit YPG positions. Kurdish officials said six people were injured in the strikes, including two children.

Russia's foreign ministry joined the US in calling for calm, as a new front opened up in Syria's seven-year war.

"Moscow is concerned at this news. We call on the opposing parties to show restraint."

Russia's defence ministry also urged both sides to cease fighting.
[click to enlarge]

"[We are] attentively monitoring the development of the situation".

"Russia remains faithful to its position concerning resolutions (to the conflict) in Syria based on territorial integrity and respect for the country's sovereignty," the statement read.

Turkey's military build-up - which includes rebel fighters - air strikes in Afrin have led Bashar al-Assad's regime to threaten to shoot down Turkish jets entering Syrian airspace.

Ankara has ignored the threats and said it is coordinating with Damascus in the operation.

"We informed all parties on what we are doing. We are even informing the Syrian regime in writing," Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the 24 TV broadcaster.

"Even though we don't have relations with the regime, we are taking our steps in compliance with the international law."

'Terror corridor'

Ankara claims the Kurdish YPG is linked to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, which has fought a decades' long insurgency against security forces in southern Turkey.

Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Saturday the start of ground operations against the Kurdish militia.

"The Afrin operation has de-facto been started on the ground," Erdogan said in a televised speech.

Turkey has claimed that the YPG is trying to form an independent state close to the Turkish border and establish a "terror corridor" between its two main territories in northern Syria.

The YPG was key to the US-backed offensive against the Islamic State group in Syria.

Syrian rebels made up the bulk of the Euphrates Shield force, a separate anti-IS operation directed by Turkey.

The assault saw Kurdish and Arab fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces dislodge the jihadis from Raqqa and much of northern Syria last year.

The US fears new instability in northern Syria could undo the gains anti-IS forces made and see a resurgence in jihadi activity.

Russia built-up a military base in Afrin early 2017 and provided training to Kurdish YPG fighters in the town.

Syria civil war map