Turkish military forces have begun an offensive targeting Kurdish forces in northern Syria, taking advantage of a controversial decision by Donald Trump earlier this week to order American forces to withdraw from the area and not stand in the way of Turkish forces.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said warplanes have “started to carry out air strikes on civilian areas” sparking “huge panic among people”.
Ankara has said it intends to create a “safe zone” in order to return millions of refugees to Syrian soil, but the incursion also seeks to remove what it deems the terrorist threat posed by Kurdish fighters in the area.
Announcing the offensive on Twitter, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the operation has been named “Peace Spring”.
It is being conducted alongside the Syrian National Army, a group that has fought against the Syrian government during country’s long and brutal civil war.
Turkey later said its ground forces have crossed the border into northern Syria.
Trump later said the US “does not endorse” Turkey’s assault, and called the operation “a bad idea” as Nato’s secretary-general urged Turkey not to “further destabilise the region” through military action.
The UK’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said Turkey’s incursion “risks destabilising the region, exacerbating humanitarian suffering and undermining the progress made against Daesh, which should be our collective focus”.
After a call between Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the leaders “expressed their serious concern” at Turkey’s invasion and “the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe in the region”, a Downing Street spokesperson said.
They have long fought for an independent state, but their host countries have resisted, particularly Turkey which has even gone so far as to ban the Kurdish language in an attempt to suppress their ethnic identity.
This struggle has at time manifested into open war, and in 1978, some Kurds formed a militant wing called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in order to fight these battles.
After Syria descended into civil war after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, Isis gained a strong foothold in the country, and western nations and Kurdish forces were successful in largely driving them out of the country.
The Kurds now control a large area of northern Syria along the border with Turkey, and it is this that has made Ankara nervous.
Trump’s decision to allow Turkish forces through areas where the US military operates dual patrols with Kurdish forces was an abrupt policy change that caught just about everyone, including his own party, off guard.
The president has framed it as part of his 2016 campaign promise to extract the United States from “these endless wars”.
In a strongly worded statement, Kurds accused Washington of failing to abide by its commitments to its key allies, calling the decision a “stab in the back”.
The SDF said in a statement: “The American forces did not abide by their commitments and withdrew their forces along the border with Turkey.
“We will not hesitate for a moment in defending our people.”
On Wednesday afternoon, 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.
Several large explosions 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, Reuters reports.
World powers fear the action could open a new chapter in Syria’s 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.