ISTANBUL — Turkey on Wednesday launched a long-threatened military offensive in northern Syria with airstrikes and artillery fire, later sending in ground troops, after a U.S. decision to abandon its Syrian-Kurdish partners.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed the offensive, called “Operation Peace Spring,” which started at 4 p.m. local time and drew swift condemnation from Ankara’s Western allies.
Late Wednesday, the Defense Ministry said Turkish ground troops had entered Syria, east of the Euphrates River, with the pro-Turkish Syrian National Army that was formed last week.
The ministry didn’t mention the troops’ location. State broadcaster TRT said the ground offensive into the Syrian border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain started through four separate routes.
Kurdish sources confirmed clashes on the ground between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkish and Turkish-backed rebel groups at the Darbasiyeh border crossing, east of Ras al-Ain.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said Turkish soldiers and allied rebels had started storming Tal Abyad, reporting fierce clashes. The SDF said it repelled the attack.
Tal Abyad, located in northern Raqqa province, is where Kurdish fighters expelled Islamic State militants in June 2015.
President Donald Trump, who paved the way for the Turkish incursion by pulling back U.S. troops in an abrupt policy shift, called it a “bad idea” and said he didn’t endorse the operation.
Erdogan said it was targeting Islamic State and the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which Turkey considers to be linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, waging an insurgency on Turkish soil.
“Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” he said.
More than eight hours after the start of the offensive, the Defense Ministry said it had bombed 181 “terrorist targets.”
The SDF, which has been Washington’s main partner in defeating Islamic State, dominates a swathe of territory in northeastern Syria.
A Kurdish source told dpa that the SDF halted all military action against Islamic State after the start of Turkey’s operation.
“The priority now is to protect the border and focus on confronting Turkey. All SDF forces have been mobilized in areas near the border with Turkey,” the source told dpa on condition of anonymity.
Trump said: “Turkey is now responsible for ensuring all (Islamic State) fighters being held captive remain in prison and that (Islamic State) does not reconstitute in any way, shape, or form.”
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said a prison where Islamic State militants were being held captive was shelled in the city of Qamishli, also in northeastern Syria, adding that Turkish forces “aimed to cause chaos and help them escape.”
The SDF is holding about 12,000 Islamic State militants in captivity.
Trump said the U.S. removed some particularly “dangerous” Islamic State prisoners from the area before the invasion.
YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud said Turkish warplanes hit Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad. Turkish jets struck as deep as 30 kilometers, or about 18 miles, into Syrian territory, state news agency Anadolu reported.
The Observatory said at least 15 people have been killed in northeastern Syria, including two children and six other civilians. Seven SDF fighters and 28 others were also injured.
The SDF casualties were in Ras al-Ain and Qamishli, observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman told dpa.
This is Turkey’s third offensive in three years aimed at Syrian Kurdish militias, after Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in 2018.
Erdogan has been impatiently pushing for the removal of Syrian Kurdish forces along Turkey’s border, and also wants to resettle 1 million to 2 million Syrian refugees in a buffer zone.
“#OperationPeaceSpring will neutralize terror threats against Turkey and lead to the establishment of a safe zone, facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to their homes,” Erdogan said.
The presidency released photographs of a solitary Erdogan, flanked by two Turkish national flags, staring into a tablet as he gave the go order.
The Defense Ministry said it informed the United States, Russia, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, NATO and the United Nations about its planned operation two hours ahead of time.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said “it is important to avoid actions that may further destabilize the region, escalate tensions and cause more human suffering.”
Turkey has the second-largest military in the alliance. Stoltenberg said he will discuss the crisis with Erdogan during a visit scheduled for Friday in Istanbul.
The U.N. Security Council plans to meet Thursday.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker urged Ankara to end its operations, and said the European Union will not help fund a safe zone for refugees that Turkey plans to create.
“Turkey is condoning further destabilization of the region and is risking a resurgence of Islamic State,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.
Egypt condemned Turkey’s “unacceptable, flagrant aggression.”
Arab League foreign ministers will hold a crisis meeting Saturday, on a request from Egypt. Syria’s membership was suspended in November 2011, after the pro-democracy uprising erupted.
There were no immediate reports of casualties in Turkey. Six rockets landed in the Turkish district of Nusaybin in Mardin city, Anadolu reported, while two rockets hit Ceylanpinar district in Sanliurfa.
“Fighting between various groups that has been going on for hundreds of years. USA should never have been in Middle East,” Trump tweeted earlier. “Moved our 50 soldiers out … The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!”
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