Smoke rises in Ras al-Ain, Syria as Turkish troops and the Syrian National Army begin a military offensive [Kerem Kocalar/ Anadolu Agency]
Turkey has launched a military operation in northeastern Syria after US forces pulled back from the area, with a series of air strikes hitting Kurdish-controlled border towns.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the campaign on Wednesday, which followed an abrupt decision on Sunday by US President Donald Trump that American troops would step aside to allow for the operation.
Trump’s move represented a shift in US policy that essentially abandoned the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which has been armed by Washington in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.
Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the US-backed SDF, said Turkish warplanes were targeting “civilian areas” in northern Syria, causing “a huge panic” in the region.
Turkish jets have bombed SDF military positions and villages in Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ain, Qamishli and Ain Issa, the SDF group said in a post on Twitter, adding there were initial reports of civilian casualties from the strikes.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency confirmed the shelling of Tal Abyad.
A witness in Tal Abyad told Reuters that sounds of explosions rang out and smoke was rising near the border with Turkey, as people fled the town en masse.
Near the town of Qamishli, plumes of smoke were seen rising from an area close to the border after activists reported sounds of an explosion nearby.
Erdogan announced on Twitter the launch of “Operation Peace Spring” and said it was targeting the ISIL group and the Syria-based Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers to be linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Thousands of people have been killed since 1984 when the PKK, designated a “terrorist” organisation by Turkey, the EU and the US, launched an armed struggle against the Turkish state.
“The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched #OperationPeaceSpring against PKK/YPG and Daesh terrorists in northern Syria,” Erdogan said, referring to ISIL by its Arabic name.
Ankara wants to create a so-called “safe zone” stretching 32km (20 miles) into bordering Syria’s northeastern region.
“Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” he added.
This is Turkey’s third offensive in three years targeting Syrian-Kurdish militias, after Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in 2018.
“Operation Peace Spring will neutralise terror threats against Turkey and lead to the establishment of a safe zone, facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to their homes,” Erdogan said.
“We will preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and liberate local communities from terrorists,” he added.
The UN Security Council will meet on Syria behind closed doors on Thursday, diplomats have said, as requested by European members, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Wednesday that Turkey had “legitimate security concerns” and had informed NATO about its attack earlier in the day.
“I am ensured that any action it may take in northern Syria is proportionate and measured,” Stoltenberg said.
“It is important to avoid actions that may further destabilise the region, escalate tensions and cause more human suffering,” he added.
The SDF appealed to the US and its allies on Wednesday for a “no-fly zone” to protect it from Turkish attacks in northeast Syria.
“The SDF showed good faith to the security mechanism agreement between the US and Turkey. This left our people defenceless,” it said.
The Kurds called on Moscow, a close military ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to facilitate dialogue with Damascus.
Turkish state broadcaster TRT said the army hit five posts in Ras al-Ain in northeastern Syria near the border with Turkey.
TRT also showed footage of Turkish F-16 jets taking off from a military base in Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey, which it said were on their way to join the air campaign.
The Kurds say Ankara’s real goal is to dilute their demographic dominance of the northeast with an influx of mostly Sunni Arab refugees from other parts of the country now living in southwestern Turkey.
The Kurdish forces have also been accused of forcing out local Arab and Turk populations.
In Ras al-Ain, Kurdish-led security forces set up new checkpoints and stockpiled tyres to set alight to blur the vision of Turkish military pilots, an AFP correspondent reported.
Ras al-Ain was one of the places from which US troops withdrew on Monday.
Kurdish authorities in the town called for protesters to gather at the border later on Wednesday and hoisted flags on tents.
“We will not leave this land,” said Kawa Sleem, a 32-year-old Ras al-Ain resident told the AFP.
“War has been chasing us for years, and every day Erdogan threatens us with a new attack,” he added, pledging to defend the area with “all means available”.
Ras al-Ain was one of the first areas on which Ankara’s planned offensive was expected to focus. Like Tal Abyad, further west, its population is mainly Arab.
Kurdish forces have dug trenches and tunnels in both areas, covering streets with metal canopies to block the cameras of Turkish drones.
‘Stupid endless wars’
On Monday, US troops started pulling back from areas in northeastern Syria along Turkey’s border, paving the way for the Turkish military action.
Republican critics and others said Trump was sacrificing an ally, the SDF, and undermining Washington’s credibility.
“Moved our 50 soldiers out. Turkey MUST take over captured ISIS fighters that Europe refused to have returned. The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday before the operation began.
Russia, al-Assad’s strongest foreign ally, urged dialogue between Damascus and Syria’s Kurds on solving issues including border security.
“We will do our best to support the start of such substantive talks,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters during a visit to Kazakhstan.
He also accused Washington of playing “very dangerous games” with the Syrian Kurds, saying that the US first propped up the Syrian Kurdish “quasi state” in Syria and now is withdrawing its support.
Turkey also wants a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border where it could send back some of the 3.6 million refugees it hosts from the eight-year civil war.
The Kurds have warned that a Turkish offensive would reverse the military gains achieved against ISIL and allow the group’s surviving leaders to come out of hiding.
While a Kurdish-led operation earlier this year saw the end of ISIL’s territorial caliphate, the organisation is not dead and sleeper cells have been active in several parts of Syria and Iraq.