Turkey presses Syrian assault as thousands flee the fighting
AKCAKALE, Turkey — Turkey pressed its assault against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in northern Syria on Thursday for a second day, pounding the region with airstrikes and an artillery bombardment that raised columns of black smoke in a border town and sent panicked civilians scrambling to get out.
Amid the fierce fighting, residents fled with their belongings loaded into cars, pickup trucks and motorcycle rickshaws, while others escaped on foot. The U.N. refugee agency said tens of thousands were on the move, and aid agencies warned that nearly a half-million people near the border were at risk.
It was a wrenchingly familiar scene for many who had fled the militants of the Islamic State group only a few years ago.
The Turkish air and ground assault was launched three days after U.S. President Donald Trump opened the way by pulling American troops from their positions near the border alongside their Kurdish allies.
At a time when Trump faces an impeachment inquiry, the move drew swift criticism from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, along with many national defense experts, who say it has endangered not only the Kurds and regional stability but U.S. credibility as well. The Syrian Kurdish militia was the only U.S. ally in the campaign that brought down the Islamic State group in Syria.
Not holding back: Trump warned Turkey to act with moderation during its assault and safeguard civilians. But the opening barrage showed little sign of holding back: The Turkish Defense Military said its jets and artillery had struck 181 targets so far.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the military intends to move 19 miles into northern Syria and that its operation will last until all “terrorists are neutralized.”
More than a dozen columns of thick smoke rose in and around the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, one of the offensive’s first main targets. Turkish officials said the Kurdish militia has fired dozens of mortars into Turkish border towns, including Akcakale.
As the shelling intensified, cars packed with civilians crowded a bridge linking Syria and Iraq, hoping to escape the shelling and airstrikes.
“When we came, there were about four lanes of cars on the road and a one-kilometer-long queue of cars,” said Murad Hassan, a Syrian Kurd from Qamishli.
Civilian deaths: Turkish officials in two border provinces said mortar fire from Syria killed at least six civilians, including a 9-month-old boy and three girls under 15. On the Syrian side, seven civilians and eight Kurdish fighters have been killed since the operation began, according to activists in Syria.
A Kurdish-led group and Syrian activists said that despite the bombardment, Turkish troops had not made much progress on several fronts they had opened. But their claims could not be independently verified.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 109 “terrorists” were killed in the offensive, a reference to the Syrian Kurdish fighters. He did not elaborate, and reports from the area did not indicate anything remotely close to such a large number of casualties.
Erdogan also warned the European Union not to call Ankara’s incursion into Syria an “invasion.” He threatened, as he has in the past, to “open the gates” and let Syrian refugees flood into Europe.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish forces halted all operations against IS in order to focus on fighting Turkish troops, Kurdish and U.S. officials said.
The Syrian Kurdish fighters, along with U.S. troops, have been involved in mopping-up operations against IS fighters still holed up in the desert after their territorial hold was toppled earlier this year.
Ankara considers members of the Kurdish militia to be “terrorists” because of their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has led an insurgency against Turkey for 35 years. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people. The U.S. and other Western countries also consider the PKK a terrorist group.
Turkey, a NATO member, considers its operations against the Kurdish militia in Syria a matter of its own survival, and it also insists it won’t tolerate the virtual self-rule that the Kurds succeeded in carving out in northern Syria along the border.
The Turkish assault aims to carve out a corridor of control along the length of the border — a so-called “safe zone” — clearing out Kurdish fighters. Such a zone would end the Kurds’ autonomy in the area and put much of their population under Turkish control. Ankara has said it aims to settle 2 million Syrian refugees, who are mainly Arabs, in the zone.
Turkey began its offensive, dubbed “Operation Peace Spring,” on Wednesday with airstrikes and artillery shelling, and then ground troops crossed the border later in the day.