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Syrian Kurds Call for No-Fly Zone After 20 Die in Turkish Air Strike

The Kurds in Syria have called for a U.S. no-fly zone in the wake of a Turkish air strike on Kurdish fighters. The Kurds say Turkish attacks could threaten the ongoing U.S.-backed operation to take Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS in Syria.

Written by Wladimir van Wilgenburg Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A Syrian Kurdish YPG fighter on patrol near a Turkish military tank in northern Syria in February 2015. Mursel Coban/The Associated Press

ERBIL, Iraq – Syrian Kurds angered by an overall lack of United States action to protect them from attacks have called for a no-fly zone, following Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq earlier this week.

On Tuesday, Turkish airstrikes battered Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq, killing 20 fighters of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) at their headquarters on Qereçox Mountain in northeastern Syria, and five Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Sinjar in Iraq.

The YPG has been part of a U.S.-backed operation launched in November to isolate and capture Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State (ISIS). After the Turkish attack, the U.S. army inspected the site of the attack. “U.S. coalition forces are inspecting Qereçox as we speak,” Jesper Söder, a Swedish volunteer with the YPG, told Syria Deeply.

Sihanouk Dibo, the PYD presidential advisor in the city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria said Turkey had been attacking them for several years and it was about time the U.S. protected them.

“[Turkey] it has become like a Spanish bull and they see the Kurds with a red color,” Dibo told Syria Deeply. “Basically, we fight alongside against one enemy [in Raqqa] which is ISIS,” Dibo said. “So this requires [the U.S.] to announce a no-fly zone over Rojava and northern Syria.”

While a member of NATO, Turkey is not part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Ankara launched its own offensive against the jihadists in August, known as Operation Euphrates Shield, but it had the dual goal of pushing back both ISIS and YPG forces from its shared border with Syria. In March, Ankara claimed it had successfully wrapped up Euphrates Shield.

Abdulkarim Omer, the head of foreign relations for the Cezire Canton in Syria’s Kurdish-controlled region, also known as Rojava, said that the U.S. needs to prevent future airstrikes from Turkey.

“Turkey attacks us in Rojava, while our operation in Tabqah is successful, and we are part of the coalition against ISIS,” Omer said. “We have an agreement against ISIS, and Turkey comes and attack us. We will not accept this, we will resist.”

The YPG is the leading force in the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have been advancing on the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa from the north, and have already surrounded the militants from the south.

Shervan Derwish, the spokesperson of the SDF, on Wednesday also called for a no-fly zone in a statement, adding that “mothers who sent their sons to confront terrorism, did not expect to be hit in the back and be victims of a NATO member state!”

A commander from the U.S.-led coalition visited the site of Turkey’s airstrikes in Qereçox on Tuesday, Omer said, which a coalition spokesman confirmed in an email to Syria Deeply.

“The coalition regularly conducts advise, assist and accompany missions with its partner forces,” the spokesman said. “Yesterday, Coalition forces visited SDF to provide assistance to our partner forces killed by Turkish airstrikes in northern Syria.”

The Turkish army justified the air strikes in a statement on Tuesday, suggesting the PKK used both Syria and Iraq for attacks on Turkey, including a recent PKK tunnel attack in Kurdish city of Diyarbakir on April11, that the PKK said killed dozens of police. While the U.S. government says the YPG is not linked to the PKK, the Turkish government sees the YPG as a PKK affiliate. Both Turkey and the U.S. view the PKK as a terrorist organization.

“Northern Iraq/Sinjar Mountain, NE Syria/ Qaracox Mountain have become terrorism nests which support and enable the BTÖ [Separatist Terror Organisation] to carry operations in Turkey that have killed [martyred] and injured our armed heroes, our security officials, our village guard and our civilians,” the army said on their official website, mentioning the Diyarbakir attack that led to “mass destruction and deaths.”

The Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told Reuters on Tuesday that Turkey will continue military operations there [in Sinjar] and in northern Syria “until the last terrorist is eliminated.”

Aaron Stein, a senior resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said in an interview that he expects Turkey to even send ground troops across the Iraqi border, but not Syria, where the YPG is supported by the U.S.-led coalition.

“Turkey has been clear that they view the YPG as a serious threat,” Stein told Syria Deeply. “With that said, I think that Turkey will send troops across the Iraqi border, not the Syria border.”

“The strike was poorly thought out and executed: Killing 5 Peshmerga by mistake will only deepen the Yazidi-KDP divide that Turkey is trying to exploit,” he added about the tensions between the PKK and the Kurdish government in Sinjar, in Iraq.

The U.S. government expressed its concerns after the Turkish airstrikes, saying while it recognized Ankara’s concerns regarding the PKK, its actions harm the coalition’s efforts against ISIS.

“The point we made to Turkey and I’m making now is that Turkey cannot pursue that fight at the expense of our common fight against the terrorists that threaten us all, and that obviously means ISIS,” Mark C. Toner, the deputy U.S. State Department spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday.

Despite the U.S. statement, the YPG still fears new attacks.

“I was on guard duty from 6-7 and saw a large plane, possibly one for refueling jets,” said a foreign volunteer fighting with the Kurdish forces nicknamed Rizgar Dêrik, who was near the mountain when it was hit.

YPG fighters have received orders not to sleep in buildings or bases in case there are more attacks. “A lot of our hospitals are closed as well. We are not allow to sleep in [bases], so we have to sleep outside in the cold,” Söder added. Dêrik also confirmed they “have to sleep outside” the day after the attack.

“There were jets in pairs traveling past each other in opposite directions too and drones,” he added.

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