ANKARA/BEIRUT: Turkey dispatched its military chief to Moscow Thursday, seeking approval for an air campaign in Syria’s Kurdish-controlled Afrin region, although Damascus warned it could shoot down any Turkish planes in its skies.
Turkey’s foreign minister said the Moscow trip by Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar was part of talks with both Russia and Iran, the two main backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad, to allow Turkish planes to take part in an Afrin campaign.
The diplomacy was the strongest signal yet that Turkey plans direct military action against territory held by Kurdish militia, potentially opening a new front in Syria’s civil war.
It would mean confronting Kurds allied to the U.S. at a time when Turkey’s relations with Washington are reaching the breaking point.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said the United States would call on Turkey “not to take any action” when asked by reporters about the threat to intervene in Afrin.
“We are meeting the Russians and Iran on the use of air space [in Afrin],” Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier told broadcaster CNN Turk, adding he did not expect Russia to oppose any operation there.
Cavusoglu said attacks were being targeted against Turkey from the region every day. The region of northern Syria controlled by Turkey-backed Syrian rebels was also being attacked, he said.
“Our response to this is our legitimate right to retaliate. We told the United States this,” Cavusoglu said, adding that Turkey was not satisfied with U.S. attempts to allay its concern over U.S. support for the Kurdish-led border force.
From Damascus, Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad said a military incursion into Syria’s Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin would be “no picnic” for Turkey.Any such operation would be considered an “aggressive act,” Mekdad said.
Turkey has ratcheted up its threats to take military action in Afrin in the past week, in response to U.S. plans to support setting up a 30,000-strong force to guard areas held by Kurdish-led fighters east of Afrin.
In recent days Turkey has deployed tanks near the border with Syria across from the Afrin region, and Erdogan says Turkey’s military has shelled Kurdish forces there.
Cavusoglu said Chief of Staff Akar would hold talks in Moscow with Russia’s armed forces chief to discuss Afrin, Idlib “and the future of Syria.”
Cavusoglu said Turkey needed to take into account the presence of a small number of Russian observers in Afrin. “When we carry out an intervention, we need to coordinate on this, it should not impact the Russian observers,” he said.