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US-backed SDF militants claim cross-border attack on Turkish soldiers for first time

This file photo taken on February 8, 2017 shows a member of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of US-backed Kurdish and Arab militants, raising a flag of the SDF near the village of Bir Fawaz, near the Syrian city of Raqqah. (Photo by AFP)

The so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed anti-Damascus militant group, has claimed that in a cross-border attack it targeted military positions in neighboring Turkey, which is leading a month-long war against a Kurdish-controlled enclave in war-torn Syria.

The Kurdish-led coalition of Kurdish and Arab militants made the news in a statement released on late Saturday, saying it had conducted “a special operation against a gathering centre for Turkish soldiers” and allied Syrian factions in Kirikhan, a district in Turkey's southern Hatay province.

“We call on civilians to stay away from positions controlled by the Turkish invaders and... terrorists, as all military positions are legitimate targets for our forces,” the statement further said, adding that there were casualties without specifying their exact number and the weapons it had used in the attack.

It was the first time that the SDF has claimed a cross-border attack on Turkish troops. However, no Turkish official has yet commented on the claim.

Turkey has been waging “Operation Olive Branch” against Syria’s Afrin region since January 20 in a bid to eliminate the US-backed People's Protection Units (YPG), which forms the backbone of the SDF. The Turkish government views the YPG as a terror organization and the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The latter has been fighting for an autonomous region inside Turkey since 1984.

Last week, YPG chief Sipan Hamo said in a press conference that his forces had never carried out a cross-border attack against Turkish soldiers. “From when we established our forces until today, we have never conducted an operation on Turkish soil and haven't thrown a single rock at it.”

On Sunday, the YPG announced that three of its foreign members, a Spaniard, a French, and a Dutch, had been killed in Syria. It added that French national Olivier Francois Jean Le Clainche, 41, and Spanish national Samuel Prada Leon, 25, lost their lives "in the clashes with the occupiers at the Jandairis front on February 10.”

Meanwhile, the Turkish General Staff said in a statement that a total of 1,614 militants had been “neutralized” since the start of Operation Olive Branch in Afrin. Turkish authorities use the word “neutralized” in their statements to imply that the militants in question either surrendered or were killed or captured. 

It added that a total of 674 “terrorist targets” had also been destroyed in airstrikes since the start of the operation.

The developments come a few weeks after Kurdish authorities in the Afrin district appealed to the government of President Bashar al-Assad to send troops and help defend them against the Turkish incursion in line with protecting Syria’s sovereignty.

The Syrian government has given a degree of authority to the Kurdish regions to run their own affairs in the face of a foreign-backed militancy. The US, however, has used the vacuum to establish a foothold in those regions with the help of militants.

Assad has described US-sponsored Kurdish armed elements as “traitors” to the nation but has also denounced Turkish incursions as an act of aggression.

Operation Olive Branch in Afrin region is Turkey's second major military intervention in Syria during the unprecedented foreign-backed militancy that broke out in 2011.

In August 2016, Turkey began a unilateral military intervention in northern Syria, code-named Operation Euphrates Shield, sending tanks and warplanes across the border. Ankara claimed that its military campaign was aimed at pushing Daesh from Turkey's border with Syria and stopping the advance of Kurdish forces, who were themselves fighting Daesh. 

Turkey ended its campaign in northern Syria in March 2017, but at the time did not rule out the possibility of yet another act of military offensive inside the Arab country.

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