Syrian fighters ride in convoy during a military drill by a Turkish-backed faction in the opposition-held Afrin region in the north

Istanbul (AFP) - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Tuesday that Turkey would “soon” unleash a ground operation into Syria against Kurdish targets in defiance of mounting international pressure.

Ankara launched a series of air strikes in Operation Claw-Sword on Sunday – hitting dozens of Kurdish targets across Iraq and Syria – and announcing that its military was once again “on top of the terrorists”.

The air raids followed a bombing in Istanbul that killed six people and wounded 81.

Turkey blamed the attack on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is blacklisted as a terror group by the European Union and the United States.

The Turkish leader has threatened a new military operation into northern Syria since May and upped those threats in the wake of this month’s attack.

“We have been on top of terrorists for a few days with our planes, cannons and drones,” Erdogan told a ceremony in the Black Sea province of Artvin.

“God willing, we will root out all of them soon with our tanks, artillery and soldiers.”

The Kurdish town of Kobane in northern Syria, where Turkish air strikes have targeted Kurdish militant bases

The PKK, which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984, denied any role in the November 13 bombing – the deadliest in five years after a spate of attacks in Turkey between 2015 and 2017.

-‘De-escalation’-

The United States late Monday urged de-escalation and Russia said Tuesday it hoped Turkey would exercise “restraint” and refrain from “excessive use of force” in Syria.

“We understand and respect Turkey’s concerns regarding its own security… We still call on all parties to refrain from steps that could lead to seriously destabilising the situation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Erdogan said Tuesday his government knew “who protects, arms and encourages those terrorists”, in a veiled reference to Washington, which relied heavily on Syrian Kurdish forces in the fight against the Islamic State group.

He said Turkey was patient enough, “not because it was desperate”, but because it was loyal to diplomacy.

“The road has come to an end for those who think they can keep Turkey waiting by playing with letters and changing the name of the terrorist organisation,” said Erdogan.

In Syria, the principal target of the Turkish campaign is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who dominate the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Washington forged a close alliance with the SDF during their successful campaign to oust IS from Syrian territory.

Erdogan has threatened a new military operation in northern Syria since May

But Ankara regards it as a terror group linked to the PKK.

A Turkish drone strike Tuesday hit a base in northeast Syria used by Kurdish forces and the US-led coalition, the Kurds and a war monitor said.

Two SDF fighters were killed, a spokesman for the group said, but no US troops were there or in danger, according to the US Central Command.

“A joint base north of Hasakeh used for planning and executing joint operations against the Islamic State group has been hit by a Turkish drone,” SDF spokesman Farhad Shami told AFP.

A Britain-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed that two SDF fighters had been killed.

Centcom spokesman Colonel Joe Buccino said “We oppose any military action that destabilises the situation in Syria.”

Turkish drone strikes also hit a small oil field near the border town of Al-Qahtaniyah, an AFP correspondent reported. The war monitor confirmed the strikes.

-‘Robust campaign’-

Erdogan has repeatedly called for a 30-kilometre (19-mile) “safe zone” to protect Turkey against cross-border attacks from Syrian territory.

At least three people, including a child, were killed in a Turkish border town Monday by a rocket fired from Syria.

Anthony Skinner, a Turkey expert and a political risk consultant, told AFP conditions “are in place for a particularly robust campaign” against Kurdish fighters ahead of Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections in June.

“Erdogan wants to bolster support for his AKP and its (nationalist) MHP allies, so he is playing the nationalist and security card. Hence the noise,” he said.

“Erdogan effectively used the security and stability cards in the run-up to the re-run of the general election in 2015. But his work is cut out now because of economic and socio-economic pressures.”

burs-fo/bp