Oct 09 2019

Turkey launches military offensive into north Syria - Erdoğan 

(Releads with start of military operation, updates throughout)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signalled the start of Operation Peace Spring against Kurdish forces in northern Syria in a tweet on Wednesday.

Erdoğan said the operation would target the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Islamic State (ISIS) and aim to create a safe zone for the return of Syrian refugees, while preserving Syria’s territorial integrity.

The launch of the invasion comes after months of tensions with the United States over its backing of the YPG and its allies, which have played a key role in the fight against ISIS but are viewed by Ankara as a security threat. 

A phone call between Erdoğan and Trump on Sunday spelled the end of an agreement by Ankara and Washington to create and jointly patrol what Turkey calls a safe zone clear of Kurdish forces in northern Syria, paving the way for a unilateral Turkish military operation.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday the “stupid endless wars, for us, are ending” as he repeated that U.S. forces were withdrawing from northeast Syria ahead of the planned Turkish military operation, but insisted Turkey must take charge of captive ISIS fighters.

“USA should never have been in Middle East. Moved our 50 soldiers out. Turkey MUST take over captured ISIS fighters that Europe refused to have returned. The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!” Trump said in a tweet on Wednesday, as Turkish troops massed on the frontier ahead of an expected cross-border offensive. 

Erdoğan spoke to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin earlier on Wednesday, telling him the operation against Kurdish groups would help bring a political solution to the eight-year Syrian conflict, Turkish Islamist daily Karar reported. Russia is a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Some 14,000 fighters from the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army have been brought to Turkish front lines to participate in the operation, Turkish independent daily Diken reported.

The Syrian rebel fighters are highly trained and experienced, include native Kurdish and Arabic speakers and have contact with local tribes, so will spearhead the Turkish advance, said columnist Abdulkadir Selvi.

The Turkish military has spent months mustering on the country’s southern border to prepare for an assault on areas held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and allied groups, which Ankara views as terrorists due to links to Kurdish militant groups in Turkey.

There is wide agreement that Turkey’s priority in northeast Syria is to remove the Kurdish militias and administrations from the areas near its borders, though Erdoğan’s communications chief, Fahrettin Altun, said in an op-ed published by the Washington Post on Wednesday that his country would take over the fight against ISIS.

Until now, the SDF has provided most of the ground troops for the U.S.-backed global coalition against the extremist jihadist group and lost some 10,000 fighters in the conflict.

Erdoğan’s adviser İbrahim Kalın held a telephone conversation with U.S. National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien. The pair discussed Turkey’s planned steps in northern Syria and the agenda for Erdoğan’s visit to Washington, which has been scheduled for Nov. 13 at Trump’s invitation. 

Despite protests in Washington at Trump’s abrupt decision, the 1,000 U.S. troops deployed in the area had pulled back from the border, paving the way for what will be Turkey’s third military operation in northern Syria.

But the SDF and its allies have responded by concentrating more troops near the border, Selvi said. On Tuesday, SDF commander Mazloum Kobani told the New York Times his forces would resist any Turkish incursion.

Kurdish fighters told Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn that they had been retraining as guerrillas to resist the Turkish advance, which will pit lightly armed militants against NATO’s second largest military.