Turkey begins offensive against Kurdish fighters in Syria

Turkey has launched air strikes in Syria

Turkey has launched air strikes, fired artillery and begun a ground offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria after US troops pulled back from the area.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the campaign, which followed the abrupt decision on Sunday by US President Donald Trump to essentially abandon the Syrian Kurdish fighters, leaving them vulnerable to a Turkish offensive that was widely condemned around the world.

The decision was a major shift in US policy and drew opposition from all sides.

It also marked a stark change in rhetoric by Mr Trump, who during a press conference in New York last year vowed to stand by the Kurds, who have been America’s only allies in Syria fighting so-called Islamic State (IS).

Mr Trump said at the time that the Kurds “fought with us” and “died with us”, and insisted that America would never forget.

After Mr Erdogan announced the offensive, Mr Trump called the operation “a bad idea” and later said he did not want to be involved in “endless, senseless wars”.

In northern Syria, residents of the border areas were in a panic and got out on foot, in cars and with rickshaws piled with mattresses and a few belongings.

It was a familiar scenario for the many who, only a few years ago, had fled the advances on their towns and villages by IS.

Plumes of smoke could be seen rising near the town of Qamishli and clashes continued amid intense shelling as Turkey struck at least six different border towns along a 290-mile stretch.

At least seven civilians and three members of the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were killed in the Turkish bombardment, Kurdish activists and a Syria war monitor said.

Turkey’s campaign – in which the Nato member rained down bombs on an area where hundreds of US troops had been stationed – drew immediate criticism and calls for restraint from Europe.

In his statement, Mr Trump emphasised that there are no American soldiers in the immediate area under attack.

“Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” Mr Erdogan said in a tweet announcing what he called Operation Peace Spring.

He said that Turkish forces, with Ankara-backed Syrian fighters known as the Syrian National Army, had begun to eradicate what he called “the threat of terror” against Turkey.

Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the US-backed SDF, said Turkish warplanes were targeting “civilian areas” in northern Syria and that shells had also fallen near a prison guarded by Kurds and holding some of the most dangerous IS militants.

In Washington, officials said two British militants believed to be part of an IS group that beheaded hostages and was known as The Beatles had been moved out of a detention centre in Syria and were in US custody.

Before Turkey’s attack, Syrian Kurdish forces who control nearly 30% of Syria’s territory warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe”.

More than two million people live in the area impacted by the attacks, according to aid groups.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said those killed in the Turkish bombardments included two Christian Assyrians in Qamishli, a married couple and their child, a man in a village outside the town of Tal Abyad, and a child in a village west of Qamishli.

The Turkish operation meant to create a “safe zone” carries potential gains and risk for Turkey by getting its forces even more deeply involved in the Syria war.

It also ignites new fighting in Syria’s eight-year-old war, potentially displacing hundreds of thousands.

Turkey has long threatened to attack the Kurdish fighters that Ankara considers terrorists allied with a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.

Expectations of an invasion increased after Mr Trump’s announcement on Sunday, although he also threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if the Turkish push went too far.

US critics said he was sacrificing an ally, the Syrian Kurdish forces, and undermining Washington’s credibility.

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, while noting that Turkey “has legitimate security concerns” after suffering “horrendous terrorist attacks” and hosting thousands of refugees, said the country should not “further destabilise the region” with its military action in Syria.

The operation was also criticised by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

The EU is paying Turkey six billion euros (£5.4 billion) to help the country cope with almost four million Syrian refugees on its territory in exchange for stopping migrants leaving for Europe.

Mr Erdogan discussed the incursion by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Erdogan’s office said he told Mr Putin the military action “will contribute to the peace and stability” and allow for a political process in Syria.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry condemned Turkey’s military strike, calling it a “blatant violation” of international law and vowing to repel the incursion.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov accused Washington of playing “very dangerous games” with the Syrian Kurds, saying the US first propped up the Kurdish “quasi state” in Syria and is now withdrawing support.

“Such reckless attitude to this highly sensitive subject can set fire to the entire region, and we have to avoid it at any cost,” he said.

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