Turkey warned Kurdish militias in northern Syria they would face the “harshest reaction” if they tried to approach Azaz, a town near the Turkish border, and accused Russia of a missile attack there that killed at least 14 civilians, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the press on Monday.
A major offensive supported by Russian bombing and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias has brought the Syrian army to within 25 km (15 miles) of Turkey’s border. The Kurdish YPG militia has exploited the situation, taking hold of ground from Syrian rebels to spread its presence along the Turkish border.
Over the weekend reports had come in of Turkish strikes on Kurdish-held areas in Syria. The expansion of Kurdish influence in northern Syria leaves Turkey with the risk of separatist ambitions spreading among its own Kurds. It considers the YPG to be a terrorist group.
At least 14 civilians were killed in the Syrian town of Azaz, the last opposition stronghold before the border with Turkey, when missiles hit a children’s hospital and a school sheltering refugees fleeing the Syrian army offensive, a medic and two residents said.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said a Russian missile had hit the buildings and that many civilians including children had been killed.
Turkey shelled YPG positions for a third day to try to stop its fighters capturing Azaz, just 8 km (5 miles) from the border. Ankara fears the Kurdish militia, backed by Russia, is trying to secure the last stretch of around 100 km (60 miles) along the Syrian border not already under its control.
Speaking to reporters on his plane en route to Ukraine, Davutoglu said Turkey will not allow Azaz to fall. He added that YPG fighters would already have taken Azaz and Tal Rifaat further south had it not been for Turkish artillery firing at them over the weekend.
“If they approach again they will see the harshest reaction,” he said.
The standoff has increased the risk of direct confrontation between Russia and NATO member Turkey.
Davutoglu said Turkey would make the Menagh air base north of the city of Aleppo “unusable” if the YPG, which seized it over the weekend from Syrian insurgents, did not withdraw. He warned the YPG not to move east of the Afrin region or west of the Euphrates River, long a “red line” for Ankara.
Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz denied a report that some Turkish soldiers had entered Syria at the weekend and said Ankara was not considering sending troops there, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.
Yilmaz also confirmed that a decision had been reached for Saudi Arabia to send four F-16 jets for the fight against ISIS in Syria.