Turkish troops have launched a military offensive in northern Syria, two days after an announcement by the White House stating U.S. forces would be pulled out.
Turkey’s Syrian rebel allies, dubbed the Syrian National Army, have also joined the offensive called “Operation Peace Spring.”
The launch of the operation was announced by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Oct. 9, who reiterated previous statements made by Turkish authorities and himself.
“Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” Erdoğan said on Twitter, referring to Turkey’s proposed “safe zone” in Syria’s northeast.
“We will preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and liberate local communities from terrorists,” he also said.
Turkey aims to clear the area of Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who has been a key U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS.
The leading group in the SDF is the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey says is the Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a group that is designated by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union as a terrorist organization.
Erdoğan also maintained the offensive aimed to fight ISIS militants and enable the return of Syrian refugees in Turkey, whose population have exceeded 3,5 million, upon the formation of a “safe zone” in the area.
Heavy smoke was seen and explosions were heard in the northeastern Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, on the border across from the Ceylanpınar district of the Turkish southeastern province of Urfa, as Erdoğan made the announcement.
Turkish howitzers and warplanes started hitting bases and ammunition depots of the YPG, while also targeting the group’s gun and sniper positions, which was followed by a land offensive late on Oct. 9.
“The Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian National Army have launched the land operation into the east of the Euphrates river as part of the Operation Peace Spring,” the Turkish defence ministry tweeted after nightfall, following a day of pounding the area from the air.
Another Syrian border town hit by Turkish troops was Tel Abyad, from which people started fleeing en masse.
The SDF released a statement on Twitter, saying that Turkish jets struck military positions and civilians in Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain, as well as near the cities of Qamishli and Ain Issa in northeast Syria.
According to the SDF, Turkish warplanes mounted air strikes against positions 50 km deep inside Syria in Ain Issa and there was a wave of displacement towards the Hasaka province.
“We call on all the countries of the international coalition…to bear their responsibility and prevent a possible, imminent humanitarian crisis,” it said.
Clashes took place between the SDF and Turkish troops near the border on Oct. 9, it also said.
“The clashes are ongoing almost along the entire border. The SDF is responding,” Marvan Qamishlo told Reuters.
Earlier in the day, the group also appealed to the U.S. and its allies for a “no fly zone.”
“The SDF showed good faith to the security mechanism agreement between the U.S. and Turkey. This left our people defenseless,” it said, as it also declared a state of “general mobilization” before the attack.
“We call on all our institutions, and our people in all their components, to head towards the border region with Turkey to fulfill their moral duty and show resistance in these sensitive, historic moments,” it said.
While the Kurdish-led forces have denounced the U.S. policy shift as a “stab in the back,” U.S. President Donald Trump denied he had abandoned the Kurds.
After the offensive was launched, the SDF halted operations against ISIS, two U.S. officials and a Kurdish military source told Reuters on Oct. 9.
“The SDF stopped the anti-ISIS operations because it’s impossible to carry out any operation whilst being threatened by a large army right on the northern border,” the Kurdish military source said.
One of the U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the suspension also impacted the U.S.’ training of stabilization forces in Syria.
It was unclear whether the pause affected every aspect of U.S.-partnered operations against ISIS or whether there might be exceptions.
The U.S. military had hoped to train SDF and other groups to create a stabilization force of 50,000-60,000 fighters to help prevent a resurgence of ISIS. As of last month, the U.S. military estimated it was perhaps about halfway toward that goal.
A third official told Reuters the SDF was still guarding prisons holding some 11,000 captured ISIS militants, but noted that a small number of SDF forces had relocated before the Turkish offensive.
The U.S. military has taken custody of two high-profile ISIS militants previously held in the area and moved them out of the country, while Trump said he had taken a “certain number” of ISIS militants out of Syria.
Turkey’s rebel allies, meanwhile, said they would have no mercy on the YPG, whom they said had left them with no choice but a battle.
“Strike them with an iron fist, make them taste the hell of your fires,” a statement from the National Army, the main Turkey-backed rebel force told its militants on Oct. 9, while also calling for sparing civilians and those who defected to the rebels.
A short while after the offensive began, two mortar shells hit Ceylanpınar and six rockets fired from Qamishli landed in the Nusaybin district of the southeastern province of Mardin. No casualties were reported from both incidents.
Minutes after the operation began, the U.S. ambassador to Ankara was summoned to the foreign Ministry to be briefed on the offensive.
Turkey also sent a diplomatic note to Syria’s consulate in Istanbul to inform Damascus about its cross-border operation, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Oct. 9.
Speaking to reporters in Algeria, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey’s operation was grounded in its rights according to international law and added that Ankara had informed all the necessary actors, including the United Nations and NATO.
Earlier on the same day, Erdoğan told Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in a phone call that the operation would help peace and stability in Syria.
In the build-up to the expected offensive, Syria had said it was determined to confront any Turkish aggression by all legitimate means.
It was also ready to take on “prodigal sons,” it said, in an apparent reference to the SDF.
Statements from Turkish authorities poured after the beginning of the offensive, with Erdoğan saying Turkey would preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and “liberate local communities from terrorists.”
Similarly, Çavuşoğlu listed the aims of the operation, while also citing international law.
“This operation is being carried out in accordance with international law, Article 51 of the UN Charter and UN Security Council Resolutions on the fight against terrorism,” he said on Twitter.
While the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu wished success in the operation, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli praised the offensive.
“A heroic soul and determined politics have entered the scene,” Bahçeli said.
Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said Turkey was “determined to eliminate terror and oppression.”
Upon a question from a journalist regarding a possible attack from the captive ISIS militants in Syria’s northeast, Soylu said, “Nothing will happen, don’t worry.”
“We should be calm and relaxed,” he added.
The statement that announced U.S. troops’ withdrawal also included the handing of thousands of ISIS captives’ responsibility to Turkey.
Moreover, Erdoğan’s senior advisor Gülnur Aybet said the Turkish President and his U.S. counterpart had reached an understanding over the offensive in Syria.
“President Trump and President Erdoğan have reached an understanding over precisely what this operation is,” Aybet told CNN International’s Christiane Amanpour, adding “He knows what the scope of this operation is.”
Speaking about the captive ISIS militants, Aybet said the responsibility for the jihadists could fall on Turkey alone.
“Of course our main priority is to provide security and stability in the areas we move into. We will safeguard any areas that contain these prisons. However, we would like a joint effort to be undertaken with the international community regarding the management of the camps”, she also said.
“We never said we would shoulder this burden all by ourselves,” Aybet added.
Turkey’s 11th President Abdullah Gül wished success in the operation, adding that peace in the region could be achieved through diplomacy.
“It should be kept in mind that the permanence of peace that will be established in our region can be ensured through diplomacy conducted regardless of the major powers’ global interests and via taking Syria’s territorial integrity and political unity into account,” Gül said on Twitter.
The only political party to criticize the offensive was the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), with its co-leaders and deputies sharing messages on Twitter.
“The government of AKP and MHP has launched an invasion attempt in northeastern Syria in front of the whole world via violating all of the international agreements,” read the statement released by HDP co-chairs Sezai Temelli and Pervin Buldan.
“This attack that targets all humanitarian and democratic values, primarily a women’s revolution, is an attempt to clear the way for ISIS, which has been waging a war against various faiths in the Middle East, and its resurgence,” it added.
Turkish Defense Ministry, meanwhile, released a statement on the second day of the operation, sharing information on the army’s advance.
“Our heroic commandos taking part in Operation Peace Spring are continuing to advance east of the Euphrates [river],” the ministry wrote on Twitter on Oct. 10.
“The designated targets were seized,” it said in a later statement.
Also on Oct. 10, the number of militants killed were announced to have reached 109.
“The operation is currently continuing with the involvement of all our units… 109 terrorists have been killed so far,” Erdoğan said in a speech to AKP members in the capital Ankara.
Meanwhile, as a sign of support to soldiers participating in the operation, special prayers were recited in mosques all over Turkey.
The “Conquest Surah” was recited late on Oct. 9 and early on Oct. 10.