Turkey has launched its long-awaited offensive in north-east Syria, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday, defying an international outcry over the threat posed to US-backed Kurdish forces and the campaign against Isis jihadis.
The Turkish leader said that the operation — code named Peace Spring — would “eliminate the terror threat towards our country” from Kurdish militants and Isis jihadis.
Writing on Twitter, he said that Turkey would destroy the “terror corridor” that some actors were seeking to form on Turkey’s southern border, and establish a “safe zone” that would allow Syrian refugees to return home. Turkey’s aim, he said, was to “bring peace to the region”. He added: “We will preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and liberate local communities from terrorists.”
Shortly before the Turkish president’s statement, Turkish media stationed on the border with Syria reported the sound of fighter jets over head, followed by the sound of explosions near the Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, had earlier said that the country’s “sole target” was “terrorists” in north-east Syria. He said: “This is our right, stemming from the UN charter, UN Security Council decisions, and international law. Our operation will be carried out in this framework . . . We will inform the UN and relevant countries, including Syria [of the plan].”
In a statement on Wednesday, the Kremlin said: “In light of the plans announced by Turkey to conduct a military operation in northeastern Syria, Vladimir Putin called on Turkey to carefully weigh the situation so as not to damage the overall efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis.”
US president Donald Trump appeared to give the green light to the Turkish operation on Monday after a phone call with Mr Erdogan, when he said that he was handing over responsibility for the battle against Sunni jihadis Isis to Ankara. Mr Trump was hit by a fierce backlash after announcing that US troops in the region would be pulled out of the immediate area of a Turkish operation.
Washington had armed and trained the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), spearheaded by Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units or YPG, as ground troops for the fight against Isis in north-east Syria, which was home to the capital of Isis’ self-proclaimed caliphate. But Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist group with intimate links to Kurdish militants who have waged a 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.
The SDF has characterised the US’s redeployment of troops away from the Syrian-Turkish border as a betrayal. The US allies have also warned that chaos caused by a battle with Turkey could give Isis militants a chance to regroup.
Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused Mr Trump of playing “a very dangerous game . . . such frivolous treatment of a very sensitive issue can destabilise the entire region. This must be avoided at all costs”.
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Russia’s military support for Damascus swung the more than eight-year-long civil war in the ruling regime’s favour but has dragged Moscow into a long-running effort to forge some form of post-conflict settlement.
Mr Erdogan spoke by phone on Wednesday with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. The Turkish president said the protection of the “rights and interests” of the Syrian people was a “fundamental element” of Turkey’s approach in Syria, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency.
Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran, called on Turkey to reconsider its decision to launch an offensive that he said could create “new problems” for the region’s security. While Ankara had legitimate concerns about its southern borders with Syria, he said, a better solution would be the withdrawal of US troops and the deployment of the Syrian army in the border area.
About 50 US troops have already withdrawn from a stretch between Tal Abyad, an Arab-majority town just across the border with Turkey, and Ras al-Ayn, 100km to the east, according to a US official.
Turkey is launching the offensive alongside its Syrian proxy forces, opposition rebel groups mostly positioned in north-west Syria where Turkey has already extended its presence. Ankara has backed anti-government militants in Syria’s bloody civil war. Aid 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.
Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran and Asmaa al-Omar