AKCAKALE, Turkey - Turkey launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria on Wednesday just days after US troops pulled back from the area, with airstrikes and artillery hitting YPG militia positions around the border town of Ras al-Ain.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, announcing the start of the action, said the aim was to eliminate what he called a “terror corridor” on Turkey’s southern border.
Turkey had been poised to enter northeast Syria since US troops, who have been fighting with Kurdish-led forces against Islamic State, started to leave in an abrupt policy shift by U.S. President Donald Trump. The withdrawal was criticized in Washington as a betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies.
A Turkish security source told Reuters the military operation into Syria had begun with airstrikes.
Turkish howitzers also started hitting bases and ammunition depots of the Kurdish YPG militia. The artillery strikes, which also targeted YPG gun and sniper positions, were aimed at sites far from residential areas, the source said.
Large explosions also rocked Ras al Ain, just across the border across from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, a CNN Turk reporter said. The sound of planes could he heard above and smoke was rising from buildings in Ras al Ain, he said.
World powers fear the action could open a new chapter in Syria’s eight-year-old war and worsen regional turmoil. Ankara has said it intends to create a “safe zone” in order to return millions of refugees to Syrian soil.
Erdogan earlier 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 embrace “prodigal sons”, it said, in an apparent reference to the Syrian Kurdish authorities who hold the northeast.
Turkey views Kurdish YPG fighters in northeast Syria as terrorists because of their ties to militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey. An influx of non-Kurdish Syrians would help it secure a buffer against its main security threat.
Amid deepening humanitarian concerns, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged all parties in northeast Syria to exercise maximum restraint and protect civilians.
Germany said Turkey’s action would lead to further instability and could strengthen Islamic State, while European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on Ankara to halt the military operation.
Juncker said that the bloc would not fund Ankara’s plans in the region. “If the plan involves the creation of a so-called safe zone, don’t expect the EU to pay for any of it,” he told the EU parliament.
RUSSIA CALLS FOR DIALOGUE
Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest foreign ally, urged dialogue between Damascus and Syria’s Kurds on solving issues in northeast Syria including border security.
“We will do our best to support the start of such substantive talks,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters during a visit to Kazakhstan.
Another Assad ally, Iran, urged Turkey to show restraint and avoid military action in northern Syria, although it said Turkey was “rightfully worried” about its southern border.
On Monday, Erdogan said US troops started to pull back after a call he had with Trump, adding that talks between Turkish and US officials on the matter would go on.
Trump’s decision to pull back troops has rattled allies, including France and Britain, two of Washington’s main partners in the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State.