Turkey Launches Offensive Against Kurdish Fighters in Northern Syria

Ankara begins airstrikes and ground operation as thousands flee; 15 civilians said killed ■ Trump calls attack 'bad idea,' Europeans urge Erdogan to halt operation

Turkish forces moving towards Syrian border, October 8, 2019
AFP

Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies have launched their military operation into northeastern Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday, adding that the offensive aimed to eliminate a "terror corridor" along the southern Turkish border.

Turkish troops began the ground operation later Wednesday, entering northern Syria territory east of Euphrates.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria clashed with Turkish forces along the border between them on Wednesday, a SDF military media official said.

Turkish bombing of the border region killed five civilians and injured dozens more on on the first day of the operation, the SDF said. They also said three fighters were killed.

"The clashes are ongoing almost along the entire border. The SDF is responding," Marvan Qamishlo told Reuters.

The Turkish army shelled the town of Kobani in northern Syria, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said in a tweet. 

European countries immediately called on Ankara to halt the operation, as thousands of people fled the Syrian town of Ras al Ain toward Hasaka province, held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. 

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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 YPG militia.

The artillery strikes, which also targeted YPG gun and sniper positions, were aimed at sites far from residential areas, the source said.

The SDF said Turkish air strikes had killed two civilians and wounded two others.

Erdogan said the offensive would aim to eliminate threats from the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and the Islamic State militants, and enable the return of Syrian refugees in Turkey after the formation of a "safe zone" in the area.

"Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area," Erdogan said on Twitter. "We will preserve Syria's territorial integrity and liberate local communities from terrorists."

Turkish howitzers also started hitting bases and ammunition depots of the Kurdish YPG militia. The artillery strikes, which also targeted YPG gun and sniper positions, were aimed at sites far from residential areas, the source said.

The Kurdish-led force that controls the region said Turkish jets struck military positions and civilians in the Syrian border towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain, as well as near the cities of Qamishli and Ain Issa in northeast Syria.

Several large explosions rocked Ras al Ain, just across the border across from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, a CNN Turk reporter said, adding that the sound of planes could he heard above. Smoke was rising from buildings in Ras al Ain, he said, with witnesses adding that people were seen fleeing the town.

World powers fear new chapter in Syria's war

U.S. President Donald Trump warned Turkey against the attack, saying that it was a "bad idea" not backed by the United States. He called on Ankara to protect religious minorities.

"The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea," Trump said in a statement released by the White House. "Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place-and we will hold them to this commitment."

World powers fear the action could open a new chapter in Syria's 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.

Erdogan earlier told Russia's President Vladimir Putin in a phone call that the operation would help peace and stability in Syria.

But Syria 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, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all parties in northeast Syria to exercise maximum restraint and protect civilians.

Kurdish-led forces denounced the U.S. policy shift as a "stab in the back". Trump denied he had abandoned the forces, the most capable U.S. partners in fighting Islamic State in Syria.

EU calls on Turkey to stop offensive

The European Union urged Turkey to end its military operation in northern Syria, rejecting any Turkish plans for a safe zone for refugees, saying it would not provide aid there.

"The EU calls upon Turkey to cease the unilateral military action," the 28 members of the bloc said in a joint statement. "It is unlikely that a so-called 'safe zone' in north-east Syria, as envisaged by Turkey, would satisfy international criteria for refugee return," the statement said.

"The EU will not provide stabilisation or development assistance in areas where the rights of local populations are ignored," it said.