Tur­key be­gins drive against U.S. al­lies in Syria

Move follows Trump’s or­der to pull back troops

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY KA­REEM FAHIM, SARAH DADOUCH AND ASSER KHAT­TAB

istanbul — Tur­key’s govern­ment launched a long-ex­pected of­fen­sive into north­east­ern Syria on Wed­nes­day, with airstrikes and shelling tar­get­ing Syr­ian Kur­dish fight­ers who have played a cen­tral role in aid­ing the U.s.-led bat­tle against the Is­lamic State mil­i­tant group.

The op­er­a­tion — with some ground forces cross­ing the bor­der later — came just days af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump’s star­tling an­nounce­ment that the United States would not stand in Tur­key’s way, bring­ing sharp rebukes from even the pres­i­dent’s Repub­li­can al­lies.

The Turk­ish foray threat­ened to fur­ther frac­ture a war­shat­tered Syria as Ankara moved to cre­ate a “safe zone” af­ter fail­ing to agree on its size and na­ture dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions with the United States.

Tur­key’s goal is to push back the Syr­ian Kurds — con­sid­ered en­e­mies by Tur­key — from the bor­der re­gion. Tur­key also claims the buf­fer re­gion would be fit for the re­set­tle­ment of mil­lions of Syr­ian refugees re­sid­ing in Tur­key.

But aid agen­cies warned that the of­fen­sive could cre­ate a new hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, as well as a fresh wave of dis­placed peo­ple and refugees.

An even greater worry was the thou­sands of Is­lamic State pris­on­ers and their fam­i­lies held by the Syr­ian Kur­dish forces af­ter the fall of the mil­i­tant group’s self­de­clared caliphate. A se­cu­rity break­down at the de­ten­tion camps could open the way for the fight­ers and oth­ers to slip away.

Al­ready, fright­ened peo­ple were on the move in Syria. Cars, trucks and mo­tor­cy­cles — with no empty seats — streamed away

from the bor­der. Smoke rose from some build­ings. Fires broke out.

Some Turk­ish ground forces moved into Syria af­ter night­fall. A state­ment from the Turk­ish mil­i­tary said a “land op­er­a­tion” be­gan in an area east of the Euphrates River but gave no fur­ther de­tails on the scope of the in­cur­sion.

Pres­i­dent Trump called the Turk­ish of­fen­sive “a bad idea,” but also stood by his de­ci­sion to pull back U.S. forces to ef­fec­tively clear the way for Tur­key.

“Tur­key has com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing civil­ians, pro­tect­ing re­li­gious mi­nori­ties, in­clud­ing Chris­tians, and en­sur­ing no hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis takes place,” he added. “We will hold them to this com­mit­ment.”

The past weeks have seen a buildup of Turk­ish forces on the bor­der, bel­liger­ent speeches by Turk­ish of­fi­cials and dire warn­ings from Tur­key’s NATO al­lies and oth­ers.

In the first hours of the op­er­a­tion, Turk­ish war­planes and ar­tillery shelled towns along a 250mile swath, stretch­ing from Ain Issa, about 30 miles from the Euphrates River, to Ma­likiyah, near Syria’s bor­der with Iraq.

Turk­ish shelling killed at least five civil­ians, ac­cord­ing to the U.s.-al­lied Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF), as the Syr­ian Kur­dish-led mili­tias are known. Mor­tar fire from Syria landed in at least two Turk­ish towns, but caused no in­juries, Turk­ish me­dia re­ported.

The of­fen­sive has pre­sented the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion with a dilemma as it has sought to bal­ance Wash­ing­ton’s part­ner­ship with Tur­key and its links to the Syr­ian Kur­dish forces that helped beat back the Is­lamic State.

Ankara views the Syr­ian Kur­dish fight­ers as ter­ror­ists be­cause of their links to Tur­key’s Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decade-long bat­tle in south­east­ern Tur­key for greater au­ton­omy. Tur­key has launched cross-bor­der at­tacks on PKK bases in north­ern Iraq since the 1990s.

A spokesman for Er­do­gan, Fahret­tin Al­tun, writ­ing in The Wash­ing­ton Post on Wed­nes­day, called for in­ter­na­tional sup­port for Tur­key’s of­fen­sive.

“Tur­key has no am­bi­tion in north­east­ern Syria ex­cept to neu­tral­ize a long-stand­ing threat against Turk­ish cit­i­zens and to lib­er­ate the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion from the yoke of armed thugs,” Al­tun wrote.

The com­ing days will make clear whether Tur­key in­tended a sym­bolic push across the fron­tier or would fol­low through with plans to move deeper into Syr­ian ter­ri­tory, an­a­lysts said.

As the bat­tle ap­proached, res­i­dents of Syria’s bor­der towns braced for the worst.

Mikael Mo­hammed, a Kur­dish fa­ther of three who owns a cloth­ing store in Tal Abyad, a quar­ter­mile from the Turk­ish fron­tier, said he had not had any cus­tomers for an en­tire day. U.S. troops based in the town with­drew early Mon­day af­ter the White House an­nounce­ment.

“Peo­ple who are out there in the streets look as if they are go­ing to some­one’s funeral. . . . Peo­ple are scared,” he said.

The town felt safe “when we used to see U.S. troops in the streets of Tal Abyad.”

“Yes­ter­day, we saw U.S. troops, but this time they were on their way out of the area, and that ter­ri­fied peo­ple,” he said.

By Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, worry had turned to dread.

“Turk­ish war­planes have started to carry out airstrikes on civil­ian ar­eas. There is a huge panic among peo­ple of the re­gion,” Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF, wrote on Twit­ter. Tur­key had con­ducted airstrikes about 25 miles into Syr­ian ter­ri­tory, ac­cord­ing to an­other SDF state­ment.

In the town of Qamishli, the SDF traded fire with Turk­ish forces across the bor­der, ac­cord­ing to a farm owner who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to avoid pos­si­ble reprisals. Res­i­dents hoarded food and lined up at gas sta­tions. Peo­ple had started leav­ing the town, headed far­ther away from the Turk­ish bor­der, he said.

Apart from scat­tered skir­mishes, the SDF did not ap­pear to be mount­ing a full-fledged coun­ter­at­tack, ac­cord­ing to Da­reen Khal­ifa, se­nior Syria an­a­lyst for the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group.

“My understand­ing is that they are still hop­ing that this would be a strictly lim­ited op­er­a­tion that would not spread to any Kur­dish towns, and that they would be able to con­tinue to keep U.S. pro­tec­tion,” she said.

“This is a bat­tle they would surely lose,” she added, re­fer­ring to the SDF. “The flat ty­pog­ra­phy fa­vors con­ven­tional war­fare.”

Er­do­gan’s govern­ment has watched ner­vously for years as Syria’s Kurds have built an au­ton­o­mous en­clave along Tur­key’s bor­der. It railed against the United States for re­ly­ing on the Kurds as a mil­i­tary part­ner and bris­tled as their en­e­mies ac­cu­mu­lated weapons and ter­ri­tory.

For years, the United States and Tur­key have been en­gaged in ne­go­ti­a­tions aimed at sooth­ing Ankara’s se­cu­rity con­cerns.

There was also the risk that Amer­i­can troops still po­si­tioned in Syria could get caught in the cross­fire.

A U.S. of­fi­cial said the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion had pro­vided Tur­key with a list of no-strike lo­ca­tions where U.S. per­son­nel were sta­tioned.

The In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee warned that 2 mil­lion civil­ians who lived in the mil­i­tary zone were at risk — “many of whom have al­ready sur­vived ISIS bru­tal­ity and mul­ti­ple dis­place­ments,” the group said in a state­ment, us­ing an acro­nym for the Is­lamic State.

The of­fen­sive threat­ened to dis­place as many as 300,000 peo­ple, the group said. Al­ready, it added, there were reports of peo­ple flee­ing the fight­ing “with only the clothes on their backs.”

DELIL SOULEIMAN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Civil­ians flee the Syr­ian town of Ras al-ayn, near the Turk­ish bor­der. Tur­key’s op­er­a­tion in north­east­ern Syria be­gan with airstrikes and shelling, with some ground forces mov­ing in later. Ankara wants to push Syr­ian Kurds back from the bor­der re­gion to cre­ate a “safe zone.”

BURAK KARA/GETTY IMAGES

Mem­bers of the Turk­ish-backed Free Syr­ian Army pa­trol along the Syr­ian bor­der, as part of the cam­paign against Kur­dish fight­ers.

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