Turkish forces nearly ready for a Syria ground operation -officials

By and
  • Erdogan to chair cabinet meeting, operation on agenda
  • Howitzers hitting Kurdish militia targets in north Syria
  • Turkey previously launched incursions against YPG
  • Russia, U.S. voiced concern about potential offensive

ONCUPINAR, Turkey, Nov 28 (Reuters) - Turkey's army needs just a few days to be ready for a ground incursion into northern Syria and such a decision may come at a cabinet meeting on Monday, Turkish officials said, as Turkish forces bombarded a Kurdish militia across the border.

Howitzers fired daily from Turkey have struck Kurdish YPG targets for a week, while warplanes have carried out airstrikes.

The escalation comes after a deadly bomb attack in Istanbul two weeks ago that Ankara blamed on the YPG militia. The YPG has denied involvement in the bombing and has responded at times to the cross-border attacks with mortar shelling.

"The Turkish Armed Forces needs just a few days to become almost fully ready," one senior official said, adding that Turkey-allied Syrian rebel fighters were ready for such an operation just a few days after the Nov. 13 Istanbul bomb.

"It won't take long for the operation to begin," he said. "It depends only on the president giving the word."

Turkey has previously launched military incursions in Syria against the YPG, regarding it as a wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey, the United States and European Union designate a terrorist group.

The PKK has also denied carrying out the Istanbul attack, in which six people were killed on a busy pedestrian avenue.

President Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey would launch a land operation when convenient to secure its southern border. He will chair a cabinet meeting at 3:30 pm (1230 GMT).

"All the preparations are complete. It's now a political decision," another Turkish official told Reuters, also requesting anonymity ahead of the meeting.

Erdogan said back in May that Turkey would soon launch a military operation against the YPG in Syria, but such an operation did not materialise at that time.

OPERATION "INEVITABLE"

The first Turkish official said a ground operation, targeting the areas of Manbij, Kobani and Tel Rifat, was inevitable to link up the areas brought under the control of Turkey and its Syrian allies with incursions since 2016.

Ankara had been in contact with Moscow and Washington about its military activities, the person added.

The United States has told NATO member Turkey it has serious concerns that an escalation would affect the goal of fighting Islamic State militants in Syria.

Russia asked Turkey to refrain from a full-scale ground offensive. It has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country's 11-year war, while Ankara has backed rebels fighting to topple him.

On Monday, the defence ministry said Turkey's army had "neutralised" 14 YPG militants preparing to carry out attacks in Syrian areas under Turkey's control. It typically uses the term to describe casualties.

The defence ministry said on Saturday three Turkish soldiers had been killed in northern Iraq, where the military has been conducting an operation against the PKK since April.

Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, having travelled to the Iraqi border area, was quoted as telling military commanders on Sunday that Turkey will "complete the tasks" of the mission.

Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer

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