Troops from Turkey and their Syrian rebel allies attacked Kurdish militia in northeast Syria on Wednesday, pounding them with airstrikes and artillery before launching a cross-border ground operation that could transform an eight-year-old war.
The assault began days after U.S. President Donald Trump pulled American troops out of the way, prompting denunciations from senior members of his own Republican Party who say he abandoned the Kurds, loyal allies of Washington.
“The 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 Turkish defense ministry tweeted after nightfall, following a day of pounding the area from the air.
Turkish media reported troops entering Syria at four points, two of them close to the Syrian town of Tel Abyad and two close to Ras al-Ain further east.
Thousands of people fled Ras al-Ain toward Hasaka province, held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The Turkish airstrikes killed at least five civilians and three SDF fighters, and wounded dozens of civilians, the SDF said.
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Reuters journalists on the Turkish side of the frontier watched as explosions struck Tel Abyad. After dark, the red flare of rockets could be seen fired across the border into Tel Abyad, and flames burned near the town. A witness reached by telephone said civilians were fleeing en masse.
Explosions also rocked Ras al-Ain, just across the border from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, according to a reporter for CNN Turk. The sound of warplanes could be heard above and smoke rose from buildings in Ras al-Ain, he said.
The assault on the Kurds – for years Washington’s main allies on the ground in Syria – is potentially one of the biggest shifts in years in an eight-year war that has drawn in global and regional powers. The Kurds played a leading role in capturing territory from Islamic State, and now hold the largest swathe of Syria outside of Bashar al-Assad’s government’s hands.
Trump’s decision to pull forces out of the way was denounced by some Kurds as a “stab in the back”. Trump called the Turkish assault a “bad idea” and said he did not endorse it. He expected Turkey to protect civilians and religious minorities and prevent a humanitarian crisis, he said.
But one of Trump’s closest allies, Senator Lindsey Graham, said failing to support the Kurds would be “the biggest mistake of his presidency”.
Representative Liz Cheney, a Republican hawk, said: “The U.S. is abandoning our ally the Kurds, who fought ISIS (Islamic State) on the ground and helped protect the U.S. homeland. This decision aids America’s adversaries, Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and paves the way for a resurgence of ISIS.”
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, announcing the start of the action, said the aim was to eliminate what he called a “terror corridor” on Turkey’s southern border.