Turkey pounded Kurdish militia in northeast Syria for a second day on Thursday, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee and killing dozens, in a cross-border assault on U.S. allies that has turned the Washington establishment against Donald Trump. As Turkish troops enter Syria, death toll will only rise.
The Turkish offensive against the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, launched days after Trump pulled U.S. troops out of the way, opens one of the biggest new fronts in years in an eight-year-old civil war that has drawn in global powers.
At least 23 fighters with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and six fighters with a Turkish-backed Syrian rebel group, had been killed.
The SDF said Turkish air strikes and shelling had also killed nine civilians. In an apparent Kurdish retaliation, their fighters killed, by mortar and rocket fire, six people including a 9-month-old baby.
The International Rescue Committee said 64,000 people in Syria have fled since the campaign began. Most of the Kurdish civilians have deserted the towns of Ras al-Ain and Darbasiya. Darbasiya is located some 60 km (37 miles) to the east.
AS TURKISH TROOPS ENTER SYRIA
Turkish forces had seized two villages near Ras al-Ain and five near the town of Tel Abyad.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry said 174 militants had been killed so far. Kurds said they were resisting the assault.
According to a senior Turkish security official, the armed forces struck weapons and ammunition depots, gun and sniper positions, tunnels and military bases.
Jets flew operations up to 30 km (18 miles) into Syria – a limit which Turkey’s foreign minister said Turkish forces would not go beyond. A Reuters journalist saw shells exploding just outside Tel Abyad.
Trump, who rarely faced any criticism from senior figures in his GOP, said on Twitter that he was talking to “both sides”. He warned Ankara he would it hard financially if it did not “play by the rules”. The GOP remained silent when he invited a foreign country to investigate a Democratic opponent running for president. But when he abandoned the Kurds, all hell broke lose. Something is wrong with this picture.
The SDF have been the main allies of U.S. forces on the ground in the battle against Islamic State since 2014. They have been holding thousands of captured IS fighters and tens of thousands of their relatives in detention.
NATO member Turkey has said it intends to create a “safe zone” for the return of millions of Syrian refugees.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan took aim at the EU as well as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. All opposed the Turkish incursion.
He told members of his AK party:
They are not honest, they just make up words. We, however, take action and that is the difference between us.
He threatened to permit Syrian refugees in Turkey to move to Europe if EU countries called the incursion an occupation. Turkey is hosting around 3.6 million people who have fled the conflict in Syria.
Ankara brands the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia as terrorists because of their ties to militants who have waged an insurgency in Turkey. But many members of Congress, and U.S. officials, credit the Kurds with fighting alongside American troops to defeat Islamic State militants.
The Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria said that Turkish shelling struck a prison that holds “the most dangerous criminals from more than 60 nationalities”.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey will be responsible only for Islamic State prisoners located within the safe zone it aims to form. Turkey would ask countries from which the prisoners came to take them back.
Trump has called the Turkish assault a “bad idea” and said he did not endorse it. He said he expected Turkey to protect civilians and religious minorities and prevent a humanitarian crisis.
U.S. SENATE SANCTIONS
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, usually a vocal Trump ally, has been one of the most outspoken critics of his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria. He unveiled a framework for sanctions on Turkey with Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen.
Their proposed sanctions would target the assets of senior officials including Erdogan, mandate sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system and impose visa restrictions.
They also would sanction anyone who conducted military transactions with Turkey. To include support for energy production for use by its armed forces, apart from U.S. military assistance. The measure would require a report on Erdogan’s net worth and assets.
“If there is any measure taken against us, we will retaliate and respond in kind,” Cavusoglu said. He added that “nothing will come of these sanctions.”
The United Nations Security Council was due to meet on Thursday to discuss Syria at the request of the five European members: Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned Turkey’s military incursion and cautioned about the possibility of ethnic cleansing. “Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people,” he wrote on Twitter.
Russia said it planned to push for dialogue between the Syrian and Turkish governments following the incursion. Putin, however, must be pleased to see a NATO rift open so wide. Thanks to Donald Trump.
Reuters contributed to this article.