Turkey launched a military offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria yesterday, after US forces withdrew from the area, with activists reporting airstrikes on a town on Syria’s northern border.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the campaign, following an announcement by US President Donald Trump that American troops would step aside in a shift in US policy that essentially abandoned the Syrian Kurds. They were longtime US allies in the fight against the Islamic State group.
Mr Erdogan said in a tweet. “Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,”
He added that Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, had launched what they called “Operation Peace Spring” against Kurdish fighters to eradicate what Erdogan called “the threat of terror” against Turkey
TV reports in Turkey said its warplanes had bombed Syrian Kurdish positions across the border.
Activists in Syria reported that Turkish airstrikes hit the town of Ras al-Ayn on the Syrian side of the border.
Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said Turkish warplanes were targeting “civilian areas” in northern Syria, causing “a huge panic” in the region.
There were no independent reports, however, on what was being struck in the initial hours of the operation.
Earlier yesterday, warning of a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Syrian Kurdish forces who are allied with the United States issued a general mobilisation call ahead of Turkey’s attack.
The Turkish operation would ignite new fighting in Syria’s eight-year-old war, potentially displacing hundreds of thousands of people, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights reported that people had begun fleeing the border town of Tal Abyad. Kurdish politician Nawaf Khalil, who is in northern Syria, said some people were leaving the town for villages farther south.
Turkey has long threatened to attack the Kurdish fighters whom Ankara considers terrorists allied with a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. Journalists on the Turkish side of the border overlooking Tal Abyad saw Turkish forces crossing into Syria in military vehicles yesterday , although there was no official statement from either side that the offensive had begun.
Expectations of an invasion increased after Mr Trump’s announcement on Sunday, although he also threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if the Turkish push into Syria went too far.
Turkey has been massing troops for days along its border with Syria and vowed it would go ahead with the military operation and not bow to the US threat. A senior Turkish official said Turkey’s troops would “shortly” cross into Syria, together with allied Syrian rebel forces to battle the Kurdish fighters and also IS militants.
Mr Trump later cast his decision to pull back US troops from parts of northeast Syria as fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw from the “endless war” in the Middle East.
Republican critics and others said he was sacrificing an ally, the Syrian Kurdish forces, and undermining Washington’s credibility.
Fahrettin Altun, the Turkish presidency’s communications director, called on the international community to rally behind Ankara, which he said would also take over the fight against the Islamic State group.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry condemned Turkey’s plans for an invasion, calling it a “blatant violation” of international law.”