Turkey attacked Kurdish militia positions in northeast Syria on Wednesday, pounding them with air strikes and artillery barrages in a cross-border military operation just days after U.S. troops pulled back from the area.
Thousands of people fled the Syrian town of Ras al Ain toward Hasaka province, held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The Turkish air strikes killed at least five civilians and three SDF fighters, and wounded dozens of civilians, the SDF said.
Reuters journalists on the Turkish side of the frontier watched as explosions struck the Syrian town of 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.
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.
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.
U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to pull forces out of the way was denounced by some Kurds as a "stab in the back" and strongly criticized in Washington, even by loyal senior figures in his own Republican Party.
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 he rejected criticism from fellow Republicans over his decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria, and dismissed worries that captured Islamic State fighters might escape in the chaos of a Turkish attack.
Trump's abrupt move on Sunday to remove 50 U.S. troops out of northern Syria, which has allowed Turkey to attack America's Kurdish allies unimpeded, has drawn sharp fire from many Republican lawmakers who are normally his strong supporters.
Trump aligned himself with anti-war voices in the Republican Party like Senator Rand Paul, saying the United States should have never been involved in conflicts in the Middle East in the first place.
Pressed on the situation by reporters during a White House event, Trump said he was open to imposing sanctions on Turkey if the Turks do not treat the Kurds humanely.
Asked what he would do if Erdogan were to wipe out the Kurds, Trump said: “I will wipe out his economy if he does that."
The Trump pullout has prompted bipartisan concerns that some of the thousands of Islamic State fighters held by Kurdish-led forces might escape in the chaos surrounding the Turkish incursion.
Trump said many of these fighters are of European origin and that he had given European nations four chances to take responsibility for them.
Asked if he had any concerns that some of these ISIS fighters could escape and pose a threat elsewhere, Trump adopted a dismissive tone.
"Well, they're going to be escaping to Europe. That's where they want to go," he said.
Reaction to Trump's move has enraged many Republicans and Democrats.
U.S. Representative Liz Cheney, a national security hawk and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said in a statement that Trump's decision would have "sickening and predictable consequences."
"The U.S. is abandoning our ally the Kurds, who fought ISIS 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. This action imperils American security and that of our allies. Congress must and will act to limit the catastrophic impact of this decision," she said.
Trump cast his decision as in line with his long-held belief that the United States cannot be the world's policeman and must bring some troops home.
But it comes as he needs as much Republican support as possible to fight an impeachment inquiry launched by Democrats who control the U.S. House of Representatives based on his attempt to get Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is one of Trump's closest confidants in Congress and a frequent golf partner, has angrily split with Trump over Syria.
"This is the pre-9/11 mentality that paved the way for 9/11:'What’s happening in Afghanistan is no concern to us.' So if he follows through with this, it’d be the biggest mistake of his presidency," Graham told Fox News Channel's "Fox & Friends."
Graham said on Twitter that he would lead an effort in Congress "to make Erdogan pay a heavy price" for the incursion.
European countries called on Ankara to halt the operation and Egypt denounced "a blatant and unacceptable attack on a brotherly Arab state".
Turkey had been poised to enter northeast Syria since the U.S. troops who had been fighting alongside Kurdish-led forces against Islamic State started to leave.
A Turkish security source told Reuters the military offensive, dubbed "Operation Peace Spring", opened with air strikes. Turkish howitzer fire then hit bases and ammunition depots of the Kurdish YPG militia. Turkey says the YPG, the main component of the U.S.-backed SDF, is a terrorist group linked to Kurdish insurgents that have fought in Turkey for years.
The artillery strikes, which also targeted YPG gun and sniper positions, were aimed at sites far from residential areas, the Turkish source said.
The SDF said military positions and civilians in the city of Qamishli and the town of Ain Issa - more than 30 km (20 miles) inside Syria - had been hit.
Turkish media said mortar and rocket fire from Syria struck the Turkish border towns of Ceylanpinar and Nusaybin. There were no immediate reports of casualties there.
World powers fear the Turkish action could open a new chapter in Syria's eight-year-old 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.
In the build-up to the offensive, Syria had said it was determined to confront any Turkish aggression.
The SDF controls much of the territory that once was held by Islamic State and is holding thousands of Islamic State fighters and tens of thousands of their relatives in detention.
It halted operations against Islamic State because of the Turkish offensive, two U.S. officials and a Kurdish source said. One of the officials said U.S. training of forces in Syria had also been affected. Washington aims to train tens of thousands of SDF fighters to stabilize the former Islamic State areas.
The United Nations Security Council will meet on Thursday at the request of European countries.
The Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria declared a state of "general mobilization" before calling on its people to head towards the border "to fulfil their moral duty and show resistance in these sensitive, historic moments".
Erdogan's communications director Fahrettin Altun said Turkey had no ambition in northeastern Syria except to neutralize the threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate the local people from what he called "the yoke of armed thugs".
Turkey was taking over leadership of the fight against Islamic State in Syria, he said.
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels had travelled from northwest Syria to Turkey in preparation for the incursion. "Strike them with an iron fist, make them taste the hell of your fires," the National Army told its fighters.
Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's strongest foreign ally, urged dialogue between Damascus and Syria's Kurds on solving issues in northeast Syria.
"We will do our best to support the start of such substantive talks," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.© Thomson Reuters 2019.