ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's defense minister said Friday there is no turning back from his country's decision to launch a ground assault on a Syrian Kurdish-controlled enclave in northwest Syria, saying the offensive had "de facto" started with the sporadic Turkish military shelling of the area.
Nurettin Canikli told Turkey's A Haber television in an interview that the Syrian Kurdish fighters in the enclave of Afrin and other Kurdish-controlled territories pose a "real" and ever increasing threat to Turkey.
"This operation will take place; the terror organization will be cleansed," Canikli said in reference to the Syrian Kurdish group, the People's Protection Units, or YPG, which Turkey says is an extension of an outlawed Kurdish rebel group that it's fighting inside its own borders.
Turkey wants to remove the threat of the YPG group and thwart the establishment of a Kurdish corridor along its border. It has been deploying troops and tanks to the border in past weeks.
The U.S. however has developed close ties with the YPG over the shared fight against the Islamic State group.
Canikli said Turkey was determined to carry out an offensive in Afrin, adding that operation had "de facto" begun, in reference to Turkish artillery attacks that have been taking place against suspected YPG targets.
The Turkish military fired some 40 rounds of artillery rounds into Afrin from border posts near the towns of Reyhanli, Kirikhan and Hassa in Hatay province, the private Dogan news agency reported on Friday. The state-run Anadolu Agency said buses carried Turkish commandos to Hatay on Friday while Syrian opposition fighters were also taken to the province from a Turkish-controlled zone in Syria.
Canikli would not say when the operation would take place, saying authorities were working out the best timing for the assault. They were also working to minimize possible losses for Turkish troops, he said, without providing details. Canikli said the operation would be conducted by Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters with Turkish troop support.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported that Russian military police stationed in Afrin had begun leaving the region ahead of the possible Turkish operation, but the report could not be independently verified. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a YPG spokesman denied that Russian troops were leaving the area.
The report came a day after Turkey's military and intelligence chiefs traveled to Moscow to discuss Turkey's planned intervention.
Canikli also said Turkey had detailed information about the YPG's military capabilities, adding that Turkey had developed sophisticated weapons since its last incursion into Syria in 2016 that were able to counter them.
In a stark warning to Turkey, Syria said on Thursday said its air defense would shoot down any Turkish jets that carry out attacks within Syria. Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad said a military incursion into Afrin would be "no picnic" for Turkey and would be considered an "aggressive act."
Meanwhile, Turkey's military said a civilian hospital in the Turkish-controlled northern Syrian town of Azaz was hit by artillery fired by Syrian Kurdish militia on Friday, wounding several people who were brought to Turkey for treatment.
Associated Press Writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.