Turkey Begins Syria Offensive, People Flee as Air Strikes Hit Bordertown
Turkey attacked Kurdish positions in northeast Syria on Wednesday, pounding them with air strikes and artillery barrages in a cross-border military operation just days after US troops pulled back from the area.
Thousands of people fled the Syrian town of Ras al Ain toward Hasaka province, held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The Turkish air strikes had killed three SDF members and five civilians and wounded two others, the SDF said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announcing the start of the action, said the aim was to eliminate what he called a “terror corridor” on Turkey’s southern border.
But US President Donald Trump, who ordered the US pullout last week in an abrupt policy shift, said the offensive was “a bad idea” and he did not endorse it. He expected Turkey to protect civilians and religious minorities and to prevent a humanitarian crisis, he said.
European countries called on Ankara to halt the operation and Egypt called it “a blatant and unacceptable attack on a brotherly Arab state”.
The United Nations Security Council will meet on Syria behind closed-doors on Thursday, diplomats said.
Turkey had been poised to enter northeast Syria since the US troops who had been fighting with Kurdish-led forces against ISIS started to leave in what Trump critics called a betrayal of Washington’s allies.
A Turkish security source told Reuters the military offensive, dubbed “Operation Peace Spring”, opened with air strikes. Turkish howitzer fire then hit bases and ammunition depots of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The artillery strikes, which also targeted YPG gun and sniper positions, were aimed at sites far from residential areas, the source said.
A Reuters cameraman in the Turkish town of Akcakale saw several explosions across the border in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad. A witness said people were fleeing en masse.
Explosions also rocked Ras al Ain, just across the border from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, a CNN Turk reporter said. The sound of warplanes could he heard above and smoke was rising from buildings in Ras al Ain, he said.
The SDF said military positions and civilians in the city of Qamishli and the town of Ain Issa - more than 30 km (20 miles) inside Syria - had been hit, and said there were initial reports of civilian casualties.
Turkish media said mortar and rocket fire from Syria struck the Turkish border towns of Ceylanpinar and Nusaybin. There were no immediate reports of casualties there.
From Akcakale, the red flare of rockets could be seen being fired after dark across the border to Tel Abyad, as well as flames near the town. In Ras al Ain, burning tires sent black columns of smoke into the sky, in an apparent effort to thwart attacks.
World powers fear the Turkish action could open a new chapter in Syria’s eight-year-old war and worsen regional turmoil. Ankara has said it intends to create a “safe zone” in order to return millions of refugees to Syrian soil.
In the build-up to the anticipated offensive, Syria had said it was determined to confront any Turkish aggression by all legitimate means.
Turkey views Kurdish YPG fighters in northeast Syria as terrorists because of their ties to militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey. An influx of non-Kurdish Syrians would help it secure a buffer against its main security threat.
Amid deepening humanitarian concerns, Germany said Turkey’s action would lead to further instability and could strengthen ISIS, which the US-armed SDF helped defeat in Syria.
The SDF halted operations against ISIS because of the Turkish offensive, two US officials and a Kurdish source said. One of the officials said US training of forces in Syria had also been affected.
Kurdish-led forces have denounced the US policy shift as a “stab in the back”. Trump has denied he had abandoned the forces, the most capable US partners in fighting ISIS in Syria.
The Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria declared a state of “general mobilization” before calling on its people to head toward the border “to fulfill their moral duty and show resistance in these sensitive, historic moments”.
Erdogan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun said Turkey had no ambition in northeastern Syria except to neutralize the threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate the local people from what he called “the yoke of armed thugs”.
Turkey was taking over leadership of the fight against ISIS in Syria, he said.
Turkey’s Demiroren news agency said Turkish-backed Syrian rebels had traveled from northwest Syria to Turkey in preparation for the incursion.
“Strike them with an iron fist, make them taste the hell of your fires,” the National Army told its fighters.