Turkey hints new Syria offensive; Russia urges restraint

ANKARA (AP) — Turkey’s president again hinted at a possible new ground offensive in Syria against Kurdish militants on Tuesday, as Syrian forces denounced new airstrikes and Russia urged restraint and called on Ankara to avoid an escalation.

Russian presidential envoy in Syria Alexander Lavrentyev said that Turkey should “show a certain restraint” in order to prevent an escalation in Syria, where tensions heightened over the weekend after Turkish airstrikes killed and wounded a number of Syrian soldiers.

Lavrentyev expressed hope that “it will be possible to convince our Turkish partners to refrain from excessive use of force on Syrian territory.”

Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces later said fresh Turkish airstrikes on Tuesday struck a base that the group shares with the U.S.-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State group. The base is just outside the town of Qamishli, 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Turkish border. Two SDF fighters were killed and three were wounded, the group said.

Turkey carried out airstrikes on suspected Kurdish militant targets in northern Syria and Iraq over the weekend, in retaliation for a deadly Nov. 13 bombing in Istanbul that Ankara blames on the militant groups. The groups have denied involvement in the bombing.

The airstrikes also hit several Syrian army positions in three provinces along the border with Turkey, and killed and wounded a number of Syrian soldiers, Syrian officials said.

"We will, of course, call on our Turkish colleagues to show a certain restraint in order to prevent an escalation of tension, and an escalation of tension not only in the north, but also in the entire territory of Syria,” Lavrentyev was quoted as saying by the Russian state news agencies in the Kazakh capital, Astana, ahead of talks on Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey's actions would not be limited to aerial strikes, suggesting a possible new incursion — a position he reiterated on Tuesday.

“We have been on top of the terrorists for the past few days with our planes, artillery and drones,” Erdogan said: “Know that as soon as possible, we will root out all of them together with our tanks and soldiers.”

Erdogan continued: “From now on, there is only one measure for us. There is only one border. (And that is) the safety of our own country, our own citizens. It is our most legitimate right to go where this security is ensured.”

Turkey has launched three major incursions into northern Syria since 2016 and already controls some Syrian territory in the north.

Following the weekend's airstrikes from Turkey, on Monday suspected Kurdish militants in Syria fired rockets across the border into Turkey, killing at least two people and wounding 10 others, according to Turkish officials.

While Kurdish-led forces in Syria have not commented nor claimed responsibility for the attacks, the SDF on Monday vowed to respond to Turkish airstrikes “effectively and efficiently at the right time and place.”

The Turkish warplanes attacked bases of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and the Syrian People’s Protection Units, or YPG on Saturday night and on Sunday. Turkish officials claimed that 89 targets were destroyed and many militants were killed.

A Syria war monitoring group said 35 people were killed in airstrikes over the weekend — 18 Kurdish fighters, 16 Syrian government soldiers and a local journalist.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Moscow views Turkey's security concerns “with understanding and respect" but also urges Ankara to “refrain from steps that could lead to a serious destabilization of the situation in general.”

“It can come back as a boomerang,” Peskov said.

Also Tuesday, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser reiterated during a joint news conference with her Turkish counterpart that Berlin stands with Turkey in the fight against terrorism, but said Turkey’s response to attacks must be “proportionate” and mindful of civilian populations.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu however, defended Turkey’s actions.

“They want to establish a terror state around us, we cannot allow that. It is our duty to protect our borders and our nation,” he said.

Turkey’s defense minister meanwhile, renewed a call for the United States and other nations not to back the Syrian Kurdish militia group, YPG, which Turkey regards as an extension of the PKK.

“We express at every level that ‘PKK equals YPG’ to all our interlocutors, especially the United States, and constantly demand that all support to terrorists be cut,” Hulusi Akar told a parliamentary committee.

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 U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria.

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AP reporters Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut and Dasha Litvinova in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this report.

Suzan Fraser, The Associated Press