Turkey announced Wednesday that it had launched military operations against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, first with air strikes and then with a ground offensive, prompting thousands of civilians to flee the region. The UN Security Council will hold a closed-door meeting on the crisis on Thursday.
Turkish forces supported by Syrian troops launched a ground offensive into Syrian territory as part of its operation against Kurdish forces, the defence ministry said late Wednesday. “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 ministry tweeted.
Shortly after, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mustafa Bali, said its mainly Kurdish and Arab fighters had repelled the Turkish ground attack in Tal Abyad.
A spokesman for one of the pro-Turkish Syrian militant groups told AFP the land phase of the operation began in Tal Abyad, an area under the control of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkish media said special forces and armoured vehicles led the ground invasion and had entered at several points along the border.
Earlier on Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote on Twitter in English, announcing the offensive and saying it targeted Kurdish militants and the Islamic State group in northern Syria.
“Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” he wrote, adding that the operation was also aimed at enabling the return of the Syrian refugees in Turkey. “We will preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and liberate local communities from terrorists,” he added.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 11 people were killed during the Turkish bombing of the border region, including at least eight civilians. The monitoring group, based in London, added that at least two of the civilian victims were killed in strikes on the city of Qamishli.
France, Britain call for Security Council meeting
US President Donald Trump said in a statement that Washington “does not endorse” the Turkish assault, calling the operation “a bad idea”.
France has “very strongly” condemned the Turkish operation and is calling for a UN Security Council meeting, France’s EU minister, Amélie de Montchalin, announced moments after the start of the offensive.
“France, Germany and the United Kingdom are finishing a joint statement that will be extremely clear on the fact that we very strongly condemn what has been reported,” she told the foreign affairs committee at the French national assembly (lower house).
UN diplomats seem to have answered the call, saying the Security Council will hold a closed-door meeting Thursday on Turkey’s military action. Two other European nations on the council – Belgium and Poland – also requested the meeting, the diplomats said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement that he had “serious concerns about the unilateral military action that Turkey has taken”. “This risks destabilising the region, exacerbating humanitarian suffering, and undermining the progress made against Daesh which should be our collective focus,” he added, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State (IS) group.
The UN Security Council’s president, South African Ambassador Jerry Matthews Matjila, appealed to Turkey to “protect civilians” and exercise “maximum restraint” in its military operations.
EU calls on Turkey to ‘stop operations’
The European Union (EU) urged “Turkey to cease the unilateral military action”, the 28 members of the bloc said in a statement. “It is unlikely that a so-called ‘safe zone’ in north-east Syria, as envisaged by Turkey, would satisfy international criteria for refugee return,” the statement said, adding: “The EU will not provide stabilisation or development assistance in areas where the rights of local populations are ignored.”
The EU is paying Turkey €6 billion to help the country cope with the almost 4 million Syrian refugees on its territory in exchange for stopping migrants leaving for Europe. But Ankara is seeking more money amid concerns that thousands more Syrians could soon be crossing its border.
Air strikes targeting ‘civilian areas’ causing ‘huge panic’
The operation was launched with air strikes and supported by artillery and howitzer fire, a Turkish security source told Reuters earlier on Wednesday. He was speaking after explosions rocked the town of Ras al Ain in northeast Syria on the border with Turkey.
A spokesman for the US-backed Kurdish-led force in northern Syria said Turkish warplanes had started targeting “civilian areas” in northern Syria. Bali of the SDF said the airstrikes had caused “a huge panic among people of the region” and added that the Turkish army had shelled the town of Kobani in northern Syria.
Saudi Arabia and UAE condemn the offensive
Saudi Arabia condemned Turkey’s offensive, saying it would undermine the region’s security and the battle against jihadists. The Turkish army’s “aggression” will have “negative repercussions on the security and stability of the region”, the foreign ministry said on Twitter. It would also “undermine international efforts to fight the Islamic State terrorist group”.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) also condemned the offensive, state news Agency WAM reported. A statement from the foreign ministry said that the aggression represents a dangerous development and a blatant and unacceptable aggression against the sovereignty of an Arab state in contravention of international law.
The US ambassador to Ankara, David M. Satterfield, was summoned to the foreign ministry to be briefed just minutes after Ankara launched its cross-border operation, broadcaster CNN Turk said.
Shortly before the Turkish offensive, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Erdogan to “think carefully about the situation so as not to harm overall efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis”, the Kremlin said in a statement following a call between the two leaders.
A senior Russian lawmaker said that Russia would not get involved in the conflict between Ankara and Damascus. The RIA news agency quoted Vladimir Dzhabarov, the first deputy chair of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, as saying Russia’s military is in Syria for different reasons.
Turkey has reportedly been planning military action against Kurdish forces in northern Syria since US troops began vacating the area earlier this week. Ankara distrusts Kurdish forces due to their ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 and which Ankara considers a terrorist movement.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)