Turkey launched deadly airstrikes over northern regions of Syria and Iraq, the Turkish defence ministry said on Sunday, targeting Kurdish groups that Ankara holds responsible for last week’s bomb attack in Istanbul.
Warplanes attacked bases belonging to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), and the Syrian People’s Protection Units, or YPG, the ministry said in a statement, which was accompanied by images of F-16 jets taking off and footage of a strike from an aerial drone.
The ministry cited Turkey’s right to self-defence under article 51 of the UN charter in launching an operation it called Claw-Sword late on Saturday. It said it was targeting areas “used as a base by terrorists in their attacks on our country”.
Syrian Kurdish officials have alleged that civilian deaths were caused by the air attacks.
The airstrikes came after a bomb rocked a bustling avenue in the heart of Istanbul on 13 November, killing six people and wounding more than 80 others. Turkish authorities blamed the attack on the PKK and its Syrian affiliate the YPG. The Kurdish militant groups have, however, denied involvement.
Ankara and Washington both consider the PKK a terror group, but disagree on the status of the YPG. Under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the YPG has been allied with the US in the fight against Islamic State (IS) in Syria. The PKK has fought an armed insurgency in Turkey since 1984. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people since then.
After the strikes, the defence ministry posted a photo of an F-16 fighter plane with the phrase: “Payback time! The scoundrels are being held to account for their treacherous attacks.” The DHA news agency reported that F-16s took off from airfields in Malatya and Diyarbakır in southern Turkey while drones were launched from Batman.
The ministry claimed that 89 targets were destroyed and a “large number” of what it designated “terrorists” were killed in strikes that ranged from Tall Rifat in north-west Syria to the Qandil Mountains in Iraq’s north-east.
Turkey’s defence minister, Hulusi Akar, oversaw the airstrikes from an operations centre and congratulated the pilots and ground staff. “Our aim is to ensure the security of our 85 million citizens and our borders, and to retaliate for any treacherous attack on our country,” he said, according to a ministry statement. Akar claimed that a wide range of targets “were destroyed with great success”, including what he described as the “the so-called headquarters of the terrorist organisation”, without giving further details.
Other Turkish officials responded to the attacks. The presidential spokesperson, İbrahim Kalın, tweeted a photograph of the Turkish flag with the comment “Payback time for Istiklal” a reference to the street where last week’s bombing happened.
The airstrikes targeted Kobane, a strategic Kurdish-majority Syrian town near the Turkish border that Ankara had previously attempted to take in its plans to establish a “safe zone” along northern Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces spokesperson, Farhad Shami, wrote in a tweet that two villages heavily populated with displaced people were under Turkish bombardment. He said the strikes had resulted in 11 civilian deaths and destroyed a hospital, a power plant and grain silos.
In the Syrian town of Derik, which lies where the borders of Syria, Iraq and Turkey meet, the Associated Press found a burnt-out petrol station with destroyed buildings nearby. “There were Turkish airstrikes here, approximately five strikes,” said Abdulgafar Ali, an employee at the petrol station. “The bombardment caused mass destruction. It shut down the station completely and resulted in the killing and injuring of innocent civilians, who committed no sin.”
The Women’s Protection Units, or YPJ, which is linked to the YPG, said the airstrikes targeted areas along the Turkey-Syria border including Kobane, Darbasiyah and Ain Issa. “The airstrikes are random that target the people,” the YPJ media office said in written response to the Associated Press.
“The people who fought the Daesh terrorist organisation are now under attack by Turkish warplanes,” it said, using an Arabic acronym to refer to IS.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, reported that the strikes had also hit Syrian army positions and that at least 12 had been killed, including SDF and Syrian soldiers.
The observatory said about 25 airstrikes were carried out by Turkish warplanes on sites in the countryside near Aleppo, Raqqa and Hasakah.
The Syrian defence ministry said several Syrian soldiers were killed in the northern Aleppo countryside and Hasakah province. Syrian state media had previously reported that three soldiers were killed.
In neighbouring Iraq, officials of the Kurdistan regional government said at least 32 PKK militants had been killed in 25 air raids.
The Kurdish-led authority in north-east Syria said on Saturday that if Turkey attacks, then fighters in the area would have “the right to resist and defend our areas in a major way that will take the region into a long war”.
The SDF commander, Mazloum Abdi, called on people to remain at home and abide by security forces’ instructions. “We are making every effort to avoid a major catastrophe. If war erupts, all will be affected,” he tweeted.
An SDF statement later said the attacks “will not remain unanswered. At the appropriate time and place, we will respond in a strong and effective manner.”
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported that a Turkish soldier and two police officers were later wounded in a rocket attack on the Öncüpınar border gate with Syria.
It has emerged that the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, gave the order for the airstrikes as he was returning from the G20 meeting of world leaders in Indonesia on Thursday. The president’s office released images of Erdoğan being briefed on his plane by Akar.
Later on Sunday, Erdoğan, accompanied by a clutch of officials including Akar, left Turkey for the World Cup opening ceremony in Qatar.
Turkey has invaded northern Syria three times since 2016 and already controls some territories in the north. Earlier this year, Erdoğan threatened another military operation in the border area. Turkish forces launched a fresh ground and air operation, called Claw-Lock, against the PKK in northern Iraq in April.