Turkey's military has launched a long-expected offensive into northeastern Syria targeting US-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters who have played a central role in battling the Islamic State militant group.
"The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched #OperationPeaceSpring against PKK/YPG and Daesh terrorists in northern Syria," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote Wednesday afternoon on Twitter, referring to the Syrian Kurdish force as well as the Islamic State.
"Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area," he said, referring to plans to create a Turkish-controlled "safe zone" in northeastern Syria. Turkish media outlets aired footage of warplanes leaving from an air base in southeastern Turkey. Witnesses reported explosions in and around Tal Abyad, a Syrian border town, as well as Ras al-Ayn, a town farther east along the frontier.
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The offensive has presented the Trump administration with a dilemma as it has sought to balance Washington's partnership with Turkey, a NATO ally, and US links to the Syrian Kurdish forces that helped beat back the Islamic State.
The White House announced Sunday that it was withdrawing US troops from the area that Turkey planned to invade, igniting a firestorm of criticism in Congress - including from Republican leaders, who accused President Trump of abandoning the Kurds. In sometimes conflicting statements since then, Trump has defended the removal of US troops.
"The United States has spent EIGHT TRILLION DOLLARS fighting and policing in the Middle East," Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, using an inflated figure that has been repeatedly debunked. "Thousands of our Great Soldiers have died or been badly wounded. Millions of people have died on the other side. GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE....."
"Should have never been there in the first place!" he added later, after Erdogan's announcement that the offensive had begun.
Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists allied with Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. 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 neutralise a long-standing threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate the local population from the yoke of armed thugs," Altun wrote.
Officials said they were uncertain whether Turkish forces would conduct a symbolic feint inside the border - which they said could enable the US troops to return to reactivate the safe zone - or would force their way deeper into Syria.
Outside experts have cautioned that a large-scale Turkish operation, if it precipitated a security breakdown at prisons holding Islamic State militants, could prompt a larger US withdrawal from Syria. The American presence, which includes about 1,000 troops in northeastern Syria, is a lean force dispersed across a number of bases.
The United Nations and nongovernmental groups have warned of the humanitarian toll of a large-scale invasion, which could create thousands of new refugees and displaced people and risk civilian casualties because of shelling or airstrikes.
A medic from the Kurdish Red Crescent, speaking on the condition of anonymity fearing retribution from Turkey, said that hospitals have stockpiled drugs in basements across the region and that doctors are on high alert. "We're worried, of course," he said. "God forbid there are airstrikes or mortars close to us."
Sabah, a Turkish newspaper close to Erdogan's government, published a report Tuesday describing how the battle might unfold. It said Turkish armed forces would wait for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops before commencing any operation. Warplanes and howitzers would pound enemy positions, then Turkish troops would enter Syria from several points along the border, east of the Euphrates River.
The military would advance as far as 18 miles into Syrian territory, the report said, without naming its source. After the operation was completed, Turkey would "continue its humanitarian work to bring back locals in the area."
On the other side of the Turkish border on Wednesday, many residents were steeling themselves for the worst. Mikael Mohammed, a Kurdish father of three who owns a clothing store in Tal Abyad, a quarter-mile from the Turkish frontier, said he had not had any customers since Tuesday. US troops based in the town withdrew early Monday after the White House announcement.
"All the shops around me are open, except that there are no people," Mohammed said in a telephone interview. "The only people heading to the marketplace today are those who need to buy food or things that are absolutely necessary. People who are out there in the streets look as if they are going to someone's funeral."
And the town itself was divided. Some residents supported the Syrian Kurdish force, which formed the core of the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, as it faced off against Turkey's military might. Others supported rebel groups backed by Turkey.
"We have people who were displaced from Afrin because of the Turkish invasion - they are worried that they will be displaced once again," Mohammed said, referring to Ankara's 2018 military offensive against a Kurdish enclave west of Tal Abyad.
"People are scared. When we used to see US troops in the streets of Tal Abyad, we would feel safe; they were here to protect us. Yesterday, we saw US troops, but this time they were on their way out of the area, and that terrified people," he said.