The Turkish military hits Kurdish-controlled towns along the border with air strikes and artillery fire before ground troops cross into Syria
Qamishli (Syria) (AFP) - Syria’s Kurds battled to hold off a Turkish invasion on Thursday after air strikes and shelling launched a long-threatened operation that could reshape the country and trigger a humanitarian crisis.
US President Donald Trump tried to justify the de facto green light he gifted his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan for an assault seen as a blatant betrayal of Washington’s erstwhile Kurdish allies.
Syrian Kurdish forces lost 11,000 personnel and played a key role in the years-long battle to eliminate the “caliphate” the Islamic State group had set up in the region.
In scenes all too familiar since the start of Syria’s war more than eight years ago, thousands of civilians were seen fleeing their homes on Thursday, in vehicles or on foot with their belongings on their backs.
The broad offensive – which Erdogan dubbed “Operation Peace Spring” – drew international outrage and warnings, including from within Trump’s own camp, and will be discussed in an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council later on Thursday.
Map showing confirmed air strikes and shelling in Syria after Turkey announced an assault, plus territorial control of the country.
After launching the assault with air strikes and intense artillery fire, the Turkish military and its Syrian proxies crossed the border into Kurdish-controlled areas.
Turkey was yet to unleash its full military might however, with the Syrian Democratic Forces – the autonomous Kurds’ de facto army – holding off two incursion attempts.
- Incursions -
The first one was conducted late Wednesday against Tal Abyad, one of the main Kurdish-controlled towns in the area where Ankara wants to set up a buffer zone stretching some 30 kilometres (20 miles) into Syria.
The other push was attempted on Thursday around Ras al-Ain further west, the other main town in the zone Turkish media reports say is the first goal of the offensive.
Our fighters “confronted a field incursion attempt by the Turkish occupation army on the axis of Tal Halaf and Aluk,” the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said.
Turkish jets carried out fresh strikes in late morning, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a Kurdish military official told AFP.
Turkey is relying heavily on Syrian proxies recruited among Sunni Arab former rebels defeated by the Damascus government for its ground operations against the Kurds
Fighting broke out in several locations along the roughly 120 kilometre (75 mile) wide front where operations are focused, the sources said.
According to the Britain-based Observatory, at least 19 SDF fighters and eight civilians were killed in the first hours of the assault.
AFP correspondents on the Turkish side of the border said they saw fighters crossing into Syria in dozens of vehicles.
Turkey, which has carried out two previous cross-border offensives into Syria since the start of the conflict, relies heavily on Syrian proxies for ground operations.
The Syrian fighters – most of them grouped under the banner of an outfit that calls itself the Syrian National Army – are mostly Sunni Arab former rebels who were defeated by the Damascus regime.
- Refugee warning to EU -
Erdogan, who is politically embattled at home, wants a buffer zone in which to send back some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees his country hosts.
He warned the European Union on Thursday that the alternative if it criticised Turkey’s military offensive was to allow the refugees to head to its shores instead.
“If you try to frame our operation there as an invasion… we will open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants to you,” Erdogan said in a speech to the Turkish parliament.
Syrian women carry what belongings they can as they flee on foot from Turkish bombardment of their Kurdish-controlled home town of Ras al-Ain
In addition to feared deportations from Turkey, the latest flare-up was sending thousands of fearful civilians – both Kurdish and Arab – onto the roads across the targeted Kurdish-controlled areas.
“A military offensive could displace 300,000 people and sever life-saving humanitarian services,” the International Rescue Committee warned.
- How far in? -
The SDF – which have little armour and no air force – are unlikely to hold out very long against Turkish firepower in the flat and open terrain along the border.
“The question that remains is how far can Turkey advance before international or regional actors, stop it,” said Nick Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security.
The assault had seemed almost inevitable after Trump announced on Sunday that the US troops deployed in the area were pulling back from the border.
Syrian Kurds have vented their anger at what they see as a betrayal by Washingon with protests outside the US-led coalition bases dotted around the Kurdish-controlled northeast
The withdrawal was implemented the next day, effectively clearing the way for Turkey to move in.
Trump has since tried to weather the international and domestic backlash, warning he would “wipe out” Turkey’s economy if the operation was not conducted “in as humane a way as possible”.
Senior Republican senator Lindsey Graham argued the US administration had “shamelessly abandoned” the Kurds.
There has also been a chorus of international concern, including from France and Britain – the top US partners in the anti-IS coalition – and Russia, now even more firmly the main foreign player in Syria.
One of the beleaguered Kurds’ last hopes is that the prospect of Islamic State prisoners breaking out and regrouping with increasingly active sleeper cells will spur the world into action.
The Kurds hold thousands of suspected IS fighters of dozens of nationalities whose countries of origin have refused to take back.
In the confusion of the Turkish operation’s early hours, US forces took two high-profile jihadists into custody and moved them out of the country, Trump said.
The pair are both Britons – part of a group dubbed “The Beatles” which stands accused of abducting and decapitating hostages, including American journalist James Foley.