Air strike launched against Kurdish fighters
AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP):
Turkey launched air strikes and fired artillery aimed at crushing Kurdish fighters in northern Syria on Wednesday after United STates (US) troops pulled back from the area, paving the way for an assault on forces that have long been allied with the US.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the campaign, which followed an abrupt decision Sunday by US President Donald Trump that American troops would step aside to allow for the operation.
Trump’s move, which has drawn harsh bipartisan opposition at home, represented a shift in US policy that essentially abandoned the Syrian Kurdish fighters who have been America’s only allies inside Syria in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.
After Turkey’s offensive began, there was sign of panic in the streets of Ras al-Ayn– one of the towns under attack with residential areas close to the borders. Cars raced to safety, although it was not clear if they were leaving the town or heading away from border areas. Near the town of Qamishli, plumes of smoke were seen rising from an area close to the border after activists reported sounds of explosion nearby.
At least one member of the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces was killed in the Turkish bombardment, Kurdish activists and a Syria war monitor said.
Turkey’s campaign — in which a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member is raining down bombs on an area where hundreds of US troops are stationed — drew immediate criticism and calls for restraint from Europe.
“Coalition forces are not near the places Turkey has struck so far,” an official with the US-led coalition told The Associated Press.
The Kurdish forces have warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” that could potentially unfold because of the Turkish military operation.
“Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” Erdogan said in a tweet.
He added that Turkish Armed Forces, together with Turkish-backed Syrian fighters known as the Syrian National Army, had begun what they called ‘Operation Peace Spring’ against Kurdish fighters to eradicate what Erdogan said was “the threat of terror” against Turkey.
Minutes before Erdogan’s announcement, Turkish jets began pounding suspected positions of Syrian Kurdish forces in the town of Ras al-Ayn, according to Turkish media and Syrian activists. The sound of explosions could be heard in Turkey.
A photograph released to Turkish media showed Erdogan at his desk, reportedly giving orders for the start of the operation.
It was difficult to know what was hit in the first hours of the operation.
Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, said Turkish warplanes were targeting “civilian areas” in northern Syria, causing “a huge panic” in the region.
Before Turkey’s attack, Syrian Kurdish forces that are allied with the US issued a general mobilisation call, warning of a “humanitarian catastrophe”.
The Turkish operation meant to create a so-called “safe zone” carries potential gains and risk for Turkey by getting even more deeply involved in the Syria war. It would also ignite new fighting in Syria’s eight-year-old war, potentially displacing hundreds of thousands.
Turkey has long threatened to attack the Kurdish fighters whom Ankara considers terrorists allied with a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. AP journalists on the Turkish side of the border overlooking Tal Abyad saw Turkish forces crossing into Syria in military vehicles.
Expectations of an invasion increased after Trump’s announcement, although he also threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if the Turkish push into Syria went too far.
In the US, Republican critics and others said he was sacrificing an ally, the Syrian Kurdish forces, and undermining Washington’s credibility. Trump tweeted that he is focused on the “BIG PICTURE” that does not include American involvement in “stupid endless wars” in the Middle East.