Turkey launches offensive in Syria

Turkey launched its long-awaited offensive in north-east Syria on Wednesday, defying an international outcry over the threat the operation posed to US-backed Kurdish forces in the region and to the broader campaign against Isis jihadis.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the operation — code named Peace Spring — would “eliminate the terror threat towards our country” from Kurdish militants and Isis.

Writing on Twitter, Mr Erdogan said Turkey would destroy the “terror corridor” some fighters were seeking to establish on the country’s southern border. The Turkish president said he would finally establish his desired “safe zone” in northern Syria that would allow refugees to return home, adding Turkey’s aim was to “bring peace to the region”.

In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from a fire inside Syria during bombardment by Turkish forces Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. Turkey launched a military operation Wednesday against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria after U.S. forces pulled back from the area, with a series of airstrikes hitting a town on Syria's northern border.(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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But Mr Erdogan’s claims were quickly countered by Nato allies, including the US, where Donald Trump said Washington “does not endorse this attack” and called the operation “a bad idea” — even though he appeared to give the green light to just such an offensive when he spoke to Mr Erdogan on Sunday.

Most military allies who have fought Isis for years fear the Turkish offensive could allow the Islamist group’s fighters to return to the region, which once was home to its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.

In addition, the Kurdish fighters who proved effective at countering Isis in northern Syria are seen as the primary targets of the Turkish offensive, since Mr Erdogan views most armed Kurdish groups in the region as a threat to domestic security.

The EU called on Ankara to stop its “unilateral military action” and warned the operation risked “providing fertile ground for the resurgence” of Isis. Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, said: “If the Turkish plan involves the creation of a so-called safe zone, don’t expect the European Union to pay for any of it.”

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Australia said it was deeply troubled by the military operation.

“Actions of this nature will have grave consequences for regional security and could significantly undermine the gains made by the international coalition in its fight against Da’esh, which remains a serious threat to regional peace and security despite its territorial defeat,” said Scott Morrison.

The offensive began with Turkish air strikes on towns across the border area in Syria, sending civilians fleeing for safety. Videos on social media showed people streaming out of the town of Ras al-Ayn where early bombings were heard.

Shortly before 10.30pm local time, the Turkish defence ministry announced that the ground operation had begun.

Local media reported air strikes as far east as Qamishli, near the Iraqi border — a claim confirmed by two people in the town. But military analysts said they expected the initial focus for the main offensive, which will be conducted with the help of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, to be on a 100km-wide region between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn.

Several dozen US special forces that had been based in the area were moved this week in response to an order from Mr Trump before the assault. Kurdish forces had already removed heavy weapons under a safety mechanism deal that failed to assuage Ankara.

“We will preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and liberate local communities from terrorists,” Mr Erdogan said.

Despite Mr Trump’s disavowal of the Turkish offensive, the US president has faced a barrage of criticism from even his own political allies in Congress for signalling his assent for the operation after a weekend conversation with Mr Erdogan.

Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator who is close to Mr Trump, has been highly critical of the president’s agreement to withdraw US special forces, and described Wednesday’s offensive as a “disaster” in the making. Mr Graham on Wednesday teamed up with Chris Van Hollen, a Democratic senator from Maryland, to introduce a bill proposing “severe” sanctions on Turkey. They said they expected the measure to draw broad bipartisan support.

Mr Trump has attempted to reassure critics by saying he would punish Mr Erdogan if he failed to live up to international commitments, a point the US president reiterated shortly after the offensive began.

“Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place — and we will hold them to this commitment,” Mr Trump said. “Turkey is now responsible for ensuring all Isis fighters being held captive remain in prison and that Isis does not reconstitute in any way, shape or form. We expect Turkey to abide by all of its commitments, and we continue to monitor the situation closely.”

Other Nato allies expressed far more outrage. German foreign minister Heiko Maas said Turkey ran the risk that it would “further destabilise the region and strengthen Isis”.

France has asked the UN Security Council to meet on Thursday to discuss Turkey’s offensive, with armed forces minister Florence Parly labelling Ankara’s operation as “dangerous”.

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Speaking shortly before the assault was launched, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, insisted that the operation was “our right, stemming from the UN charter, UN Security Council decisions and international law.” He said that his nation’s “sole target” was “terrorists” in north-east Syria.

Mr Trump has faced accusations of abandoning the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The Kurdish-dominated group was trained and equipped by the US and spearheaded the fight against Isis in north-east Syria.

But Ankara views the group’s Kurdish elements as terrorists with intimate links to militants who have waged a bloody 35-year insurgency on Turkish soil. It was enraged by the decision by the US, a fellow Nato member, to support Kurdish forces in Syria — and has long vowed to attack.

In an interview with PBS News, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo defended Mr Trump’s decision to move US troops, and said the US mission had been to “take down the caliphate”.

“On the phone call on Sunday night, it became very clear that there were American soldiers that were going to be at risk and the president made a decision to put them in a place where they were out of harm’s way,” Mr Pompeo said.

When Mr Pompeo was asked if he still viewed the YPG as US allies, he replied: “The Turks have a legitimate security concern . . . They have a terrorist threat to their south.”

Mr Pompeo said the US had not given Turkey the “green light” for its offensive in Syria.

Wednesday’s operation drew cautious pushback from Moscow and Tehran — two key backers of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad that have also forged co-operation with Turkey in Syria in recent years. 

Russian president Vladimir Putin urged Turkey to “carefully weigh the situation so as not to damage the overall efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis”, the Kremlin said. Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, called on Turkey to reconsider its decision to launch an offensive that he said could create “new problems” for the region’s security.

Aid organisations, meanwhile, were concerned about the humanitarian impact of a new front in an eight-year civil war that has already cost half a million lives.

Non-governmental organisations have estimated there are just under 500,000 people living within 5km of the Syrian-Turkish border east of the Euphrates river, including about 91,000 people who have fled there from other parts of Syria.

The New York-based International Rescue Committee said it was “deeply concerned”,

“A military offensive could displace 300,000 people and disrupt life-saving humanitarian services, including the IRC’s,” it said.

The offensive, which comes at a time when Turkey’s economy is recovering from last year’s painful currency crisis, also put fresh pressure on the lira. The currency slipped 0.6 per cent against the dollar on Wednesday to reach its weakest level since mid-June, according to Refinitiv data.

Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran, Aime Williams in Washington, Asmaa al-Omar, David Keohane in Paris and Jamie Smyth in Sydney

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