The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has said that a long-planned Turkish military operation in north-east Syria has begun, as Kurdish forces which currently control of the area reported widespread airstrikes and “huge panic”.
The move was triggered by Donald Trump’s announcement at the weekend that US troops would withdraw from the area, where thousands of captured Isis fighters and their families are held by Kurdish forces, and threatens to open a bloody new front in the Syrian war.
“The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched #OperationPeaceSpring against PKK/YPG and Daesh [Isis] terrorists 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,” Erdoğan tweeted on Wednesday.
Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara considers an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), confirmed shortly after Erdoğan’s announcement that Turkish warplanes had already begun attacking the region, creating a “huge panic among people”. An SDF soldier shared photographs of plumes of smoke, which he said was the result of airstrikes and artillery fire near the border town of Ras al-Ayn.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said civilians in Ras al-Ayn and neighbouring villages had begun fleeing deeper inside the Kurdish-held region. Qamishli and Ain Issa, key administrative centres for the SDF, were hit by airstrikes, a spokesman said.
The Turkish Anadolu news agency said rockets fired from Qamishli had landed on the other side of the border in Nusaybin.
Earlier in the day, Turkish forces crossed the border near the town of Tal Abyad.
Turkey says it is seeking to establish a 20-mile (32km) deep safe zone along the border to secure the country against the threat of what it says are Kurdish terror groups as well as Isis.
Trump has tasked Turkey with ensuring that gains made against Isis, which was driven from the remains of its territorial “caliphate” earlier this year by US-led air and Kurdish-led ground forces, are not undone, as well as the responsibility for almost 90,000 men, women and children with links to the terror group currently held by the Kurds.
The largest camp for women and children, al-Hawl, is home to 74,000 people, and lies outside the parameters of the proposed safe zone. It is not clear how Turkey will handle the transfer of prisoners from SDF custody.
The SDF, a US-backed force, is Turkey’s main target. The umbrella force has been left exposed to a Turkish assault after Trump’s announcement on Sunday that the US would remove the 1,000 special forces posted in the region, which have to date acted as a buffer between the SDF and Turkey, the US’s Nato ally and a key trade partner.
Meanwhile, forces belonging to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, have also been on the move to the South of Syria’s Kurdish-held region, leaving the SDF pinched between the two.
Between 100 to 150 US troops have been moved away from key positions on the Syrian-Turkish border, the Guardian understands. No troops have left the country yet, and convoys of US supplies have continued to enter the region from Iraq.
Trump’s decision to pull back US troops from Syria leaving the SDF vulnerable to attack has been widely criticised by allies and even some of the president’s staunchest Republican allies.
The president defended the move on Wednesday, citing a focus on the “BIG PICTURE!” in a tweet. “GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY!” he said.
Apart from that tweet, the US administration was silent on the Turkish invasion on Wednesday. Secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, appeared alongside Colombia’s visiting foreign minister, but did not mention the situation in Syria.
In Congress however, senators from both parties said they were preparing severe sanctions against Turkey.
“Turkey must pay a heavy price for attacking our Syrian Kurdish partners,” Democratic senator, Chris van Hollen said on Twitter. “Senators on both sides of the aisle won’t support abandoning the one regional group most responsible for putting Isis on its heels. Our bipartisan sanctions bill is being finalized now.”
The five European countries currently on the UN security council have called for a special session on the Turkish invasion on Thursday, but diplomats said it was unclear what far the council could go in the face of tacit Russian support for the Turkish move and US ambivalence.
Aid groups have warned the withdrawal risks a humanitarian catastrophe as thousands flee the expected fighting , as well as the re-emergence of Isis. The SDF says it has already withdrawn some soldiers from the prisons and camps holding Isis members to focus on defending against Turkey, raising fears that Isis sleeper cells could attack and liberate those inside.
Isis claimed an overnight suicide attack by two of its fighters in its former capital Raqqa, which killed and injured 25 people.
In response to Turkish advances, Kurdish leaders in the area issued a general mobilisation call, urging civlians to “head to the border with Turkey … to resist during this delicate historical moment”. The SDF has resumed digging trenches and tunnels in the border areas, covering streets with metal canopies and stockpiling tyres to burn to block the cameras of Turkish drones.
Kurdish officials also said that they have asked Russia, Assad’s major ally, to facilitate a dialogue with Damascus. The Kurds risk losing the autonomy they won during Syria’s eight-year-old war by realigning with the Syrian regime but such a move is likely to stave off the worst of a Turkish attack.
A secondary goal of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring is to repatriate up to 2 million of the country’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees inside the planned border zone. The Kurds say Ankara’s real goal is to dilute their demographic dominance of the north-east with an influx of mostly Sunni Arab refugees originally from other parts of Syria.