Turks target Kurdish fighters in Syria
AMMAN, Jordan — In a move to excise a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia, Turkey launched an incursion into northern Syria on Wednesday that frustrated lawmakers in Washington who had hoped to prevent an abandonment of an important ally against Islamic State militants.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced via Twitter the start of the Turkish blitz even as news channels began to beam images of Turkish artillery and warplanes pounding the parts of northern Syria controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led group of militias that have for years received backing from the United States.
“The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched #OperationPeaceSpring,” Erdogan wrote. “Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area.”
A spokesman for the Syrian Kurdish forces, Mustafa Bali, confirmed that Turkish warplanes had begun airstrikes on areas near the Syrian border. At least seven civilians reportedly were killed in the strikes.
The operation comes after the Trump administration in effect said this week it would allow a Turkish incursion into Syria, as the U.S. withdrew its troops. The move brought harsh criticism even from the president’s staunch Republican allies, who excoriated him for allowing one U.S. ally, Turkey, to attack another ally, the Kurds.
President Donald Trump, in a statement issued by the White House on Wednesday, said the U.S. “does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea.”
Activist groups posted images and videos of civilians escaping Ras al-Ayn, one of two towns targeted in the Turkish offensive.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported that the government was deploying artillery and mortars along with warplanes to strike positions in Ras al-Ayn and elsewhere, while troops destroyed fortifications set up by the Kurds.
White House officials defended their decision to withdraw the 50 to 100 special operations troops from observation posts near the Syria-Turkey border, insisting that they had not given Turkey a green light to invade and calling on Ankara to safeguard civilians.
“Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place,” the Trump statement said, adding that Ankara “is now responsible for ensuring all ISIS fighters being held captive remain in prison and that ISIS does not reconstitute in any way, shape, or form.”
But there was no confirmation from Turkish officials its operation included such sweeping goals.
Trump also seemed to downplay the risk from Islamic State prisoners, saying if they escaped they would go to European countries, which he claimed had refused requests to take back detainees who had joined the fight in Syria from Europe. He did not specify which countries.
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. official said that the pullback ordered by Trump has “effectively frozen” wider U.S. operations against Islamic State in northeastern Syria, and that top U.S. commanders are expecting to be ordered soon to withdraw the roughly 1,000 troops still in the Syrian region. Kurdish fighters in the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces had shifted their focus to opposing the Turkish invasion.
Trump said at the White House that the Pentagon had moved “a certain number of ISIS fighters that are particularly bad” to make sure they didn’t escape with the Kurds now fighting Turkey. No details were immediately available.
Michael Morell, a former acting director of CIA, wrote in a tweet Wednesday that Turkey’s plan was to create a zone inside Syria in areas now controlled by the Kurds. Ankara “will create a buffer along the border between it and the Kurds, pushing Kurds from their homes south. The Turks will install in this area Syrian Arab refugees now in Turkey. As this unfolds, the Turks will commit atrocities and Kurds will die.”
The Turkish army’s tank drives towards the border with Syria near Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on Tuesday.