Turkey says Kurds have no right to appeal to Assad

Turkey says the YPG does not have the right to appeal to the Syrian regime "on behalf of the local population" after regions they hold in northern Syria were left vulnerable by US troop withdrawal.

ANKARA - Turkey on Friday said a Syrian Kurdish militia "does not have the right" to appeal to Damascus for help to counter a threatened Turkish offensive in the north.

The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia "controlling the area with arms does not have the right or power to make a statement or invite other elements on behalf of the local population," the defence ministry said.

"We warn all sides to stay away from provocative actions and making statements that will bring further instability to the region," the ministry said in a statement.

Syrian regime forces on Friday entered the strategic northern city of Manbij, held by the YPG since recapturing the area from the Islamic State jihadist group in 2016.

The militia had said it invited regime troops "to assert control over the areas our forces have withdrawn from, particularly in Manbij, and to protect these areas against a Turkish invasion".

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul that there was "nothing certain there" in Manbij after he had discussions with intelligence officials.

He dismissed the regime's actions as an attempt to use "psychological" warfare.

Consolidating control

Concentrated in the north, Kurds make up around 15 percent of Syria's population.

Most are Sunni Muslims, but there are some non-Muslim minorities and many Kurds consider themselves secular.

They have suffered decades of marginalisation and oppression by the ruling Baath party and have long pushed for their cultural and political rights.

When Syria's conflict erupted in 2011, the Kurdish population generally sought to adopt a position of neutrality.

President Bashar al-Assad made conciliatory gestures towards the Kurds from the earliest days of the conflict, granting citizenship to 300,000 people -- a key demand for half a century.

The Kurds had been stripped of their nationality following a controversial census in 1962.

In 2012, government forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas in the north and east, paving the way for Kurds to consolidate control on the ground.

They have since established self-rule in many of these zones and have sought to prevent rebels and regime forces from entering them.

In 2013, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) -- the political branch of the YPG -- announced the establishment of a semi-autonomous region.

In 2016, Kurdish authorities unveiled a "federal region" for this territory comprising three cantons: Afrin in Aleppo province, Jazira (Hasakeh province) and Euphrates (which includes parts of Aleppo and Raqa provinces).

The initiative looked like de facto autonomy, provoking hostility from both Syria's mainstream opposition forces and Turkey.

At the end of 2016, the Kurds gave themselves a "social contract" -- a kind of constitution for their "federal region".

A year later residents of Kurdish regions elected their own municipal councillors.

Fighting terrorists

Since the outbreak of war, Kurdish fighters have been one of the most effective forces fighting the Islamic State group, with air support from a US-led coalition.

At the start of 2015, they ousted IS from Kobane on the Turkish border after more than four months of fierce fighting.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish forces and local Arab militiamen was created in October 2015.

Dominated by the YPG, it has been the main ground force battling the remnants of the jihadist "caliphate" in eastern Syria.

In October 2017, they ousted IS from its de facto Syrian capital, Raqa, and by the end of 2018 they were still fighting die-hard jihadists near the Iraqi border.

Ankara, however, says the YPG is a "terrorist offshoot" of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984. Turkey and its Western allies have blacklisted the PKK as a terror group.

But the YPG has been trained by the United States to spearhead the fight against IS. In January 2018, the US-led coalition announced it was working to create in northern Syria a 30,000-strong border force comprised of Kurdish and Arab fighters, around half of whom would be retrained SDF fighters.

American ground forces are in Manbij but the situation has changed dramatically since US President Donald Trump announced he would pull out all 2,000 US troops.

After the shock decision, Turkey said it would launch a military operation in the coming months against both the YPG and IS.

The Turkish armed forces have been reinforcing the border with Syria since last weekend.

Turkey has twice launched offensives in northern Syria against IS and the YPG.  On January 20, 2018, Turkey launched an air and ground operation against the YPG-held enclave of Afrin, taking control of it on March 18.

A Turkish delegation comprising the foreign and defence ministers will go to Moscow on Saturday to discuss the US withdrawal as well as the latest developments in Manbij.

Erdogan said after the delegation's visit he could have a face-to-face meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Russia.