Turkish forces approached a key Kurdish-held town in northern Syria on Sunday, setting off clashes that allowed hundreds of Islamic State supporters to escape from a camp for displaced people near a U.S.-led coalition base, Syrian Kurdish officials said.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that U.S. President Donald Trump has ordered all U.S. troops in northern Syria to move south, but not leave the country.
Esper told CBS' "Face the Nation" that the conflict between Turkish forces and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters had become "untenable" for the U.S. military. Esper added that Turkey's invasion of Syria “appears to be” a war crime.
The United States is considering plans to withdraw the bulk of American troops from northern Syria in the coming days, two U.S. officials told Reuters on Sunday, in what would be a faster-than-expected timeline for the U.S. pullout amid Turkey’s escalating offensive.
A U.S. military official earlier said the situation across northeastern Syria was "deteriorating rapidly" and that American forces no longer control ground communications with the Syrian Kurdish fighters they had previously partnered with.
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The official, who was not authorized to disclose operational details and spoke on condition of anonymity, said U.S. troops on the ground are at risk of being "isolated" and could clash with Turkey-backed Syrian forces.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria said in a statement that 950 Islamic State supporters escaped a camp in Ain Eissa after attacking guards and storming the gates. It was not immediately possible to confirm that figure.
The camp in Ain Eissa, some 35 kilometers (20 miles) south of the border, is home to some 12,000 people, including 1,000 wives and widows of Islamic State fighters and their children.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing sources in the camp, provided a lower figure, saying that only around 100 people had escaped the camp.
The Observatory said Turkish warplanes struck villages near Ain Eissa on Sunday and camp residents fled as clashes broke out between Turkey-backed Syrian fighters and Kurdish forces.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were a key U.S. ally in the war against the Islamic State group and drove the extremists from most of the territory they once held in northeastern Syria. The force swept up thousands of Islamic State fighters and their family members in the campaign, and has warned it may not be able to maintain its various detention centers as it struggles to repel the Turkish advance.
NATO member Turkey views the Kurdish fighters as terrorists because of their links to the insurgency in its southeast and has vowed to carve out a "safe zone" along the border. It launched the operation earlier this week after Trump moved U.S. forces aside, saying he was committed to getting out of America's "endless" wars.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Turkey's Erdogan in a phone call on Sunday to bring to an immediate halt to the military operation in northern Syria, a German government spokeswoman said.
"The Chancellor advocated an immediate end to the military operation," the spokeswoman said in a statement.
The phone call took place at Erdogan's request, she said
The United Nations says more than 130,000 Syrians have fled since the operation began five days ago, including many who had taken refuge from previous rounds of fighting in the country's eight-year civil war. The fighting reached the main highway that runs between Hassakeh, a major town and logistical hub, and Ain Eissa, the administrative center of the Kurdish-held areas.
Along the front lines, Turkish forces and Syrian rebels entered Suluk, some 10 km (6 miles) from Turkey’s border, the Observatory said on Sunday.
Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency said the rebels seized complete control of Suluk. But the SDF’s Qamishlo said SDF forces had repelled the attack and were still in control.
Suluk is southeast of the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad, one of the two main targets in the incursion, which was bombarded by Turkish howitzers on Sunday afternoon, a witness in the neighboring Turkish town of Akcakale said.
Machinegun fire resounded around the Syrian frontier town of Ras al Ain, 120 km (75 miles) to the east of Tel Abyad, while Turkish artillery continued to target the area, a Reuters reporter across the border in Turkey’s Ceylanpinar said.
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, known as the National Army, advanced into Ras al Ain on Saturday but by Sunday there were still conflicting reports on which side was prevailing in the town.
The Syrian Observatory said the SDF, in which the YPG comprises the main fighting element, had recovered “almost full control” of Ras al Ain after a counter-attack.
A spokesman for the National Army denied this, saying its forces were still in the positions they took on Saturday.
Turkish troops and their Syrian allies have made steady gains since launching the operation, capturing several northern villages in fighting and bombardment that has killed and wounded dozens of people. The military said it captured the center of the sizable town of Ras al-Ayn Saturday. Turkey continued shelling around the town and sporadic clashes could be heard.
Turkey's Defense Ministry tweeted that 480 Kurdish fighters were "neutralized" since Wednesday. The number could not be independently verified.
The clashes have spilled across the border, with shells fired from Syria hitting the Turkish border towns of Akcakale and Suruc. Anadolu says one person was wounded in Suruc on Sunday.
Heavy outgoing shelling could be heard in Akcakale early Sunday and at least one incoming projectile hit a house, leaving a gaping hole in the exterior wall and rubble inside. It was not immediately clear if anyone was wounded. Police collected evidence as a crowd gathered outside.
The UN meanwhile said a pumping station in the town of Hassakeh was damaged by shelling, affecting the water supply for 400,000 people, including 82,000 residents of camps for displaced people.
Turkey is facing threats of possible sanctions from the United States unless it calls off the incursion. Two of its NATO allies, Germany and France, have said they are halting weapons exports to Turkey. The Arab League has denounced the operation.
Ankara launched the assault against the Kurdish YPG militia after U.S. Trump withdrew some U.S. troops from the border region. Ankara says the YPG is a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish militants waging an insurgency in Turkey.
Turkey’s stated objective is to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria to resettle many of the 3.6 million Syrian war refugees it has been hosting. President Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to send them to Europe if the EU does not back his assault.
But the Turkish incursion has raised international alarm over large-scale displacements of civilians and, amidst the upheaval, the possibility of Islamic State militants escaping from prisons run by the Kurdish-led authorities.
The Kurdish-led forces have been the main regional ally of the United States against Islamic State in Syria.
The SDF accused Turkey-backed rebels of killing a Kurdish politician in a road ambush on Saturday. The rebel force denied it, saying it had not advanced that far.
The Syrian Observatory said Turkey-backed groups had killed nine civilians on the road, including Hervin Khalaf, co-chair of the secular Future Syria Party.