Turkey begins its assault on Kurds in northeast Syria, Erdoğan announces

Turkey has begun its long-awaited assault on Kurdish-held areas of northeast Syria, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced Wednesday, as Turkish warplanes began striking across the border.  Turkish television showed smoke rising from the Kurdish-held town of Ras al-Ain as fighter jets began attacking the positions of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led force that led the fight against Islamic State (Isil). Shelling was also reported in Tal Abyad, another SDF-controlled town 100km away.  “Our aim is to destroy the terror corridor, which is trying to be established on our southern border, and bring peace to the region,” Mr Erdoğan said, announcing that the operation would be known as “Peace Spring”. “We will protect the territorial integrity of Syria, and free the people of the region from the clutches of terror,” he said. Turkey considers the SDF to be a part of the PKK terrorist group.

Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, confirmed that the attack had begun. “Turkish warplanes have started to carry out airstrikes on civilian areas. There is a huge panic among people of the region,” he said.

Local authorities earlier declared a state of emergency and called on civilian volunteers to head to the front lines.  “We announce three days of general mobilisation in northern and eastern Syria,” the local administration said, urging all civilians to “head to the border with Turkey to fulfill their duty”.

US officials meanwhile reportedly said they had no plans to take control of prisons holding Islamic State (Isil) suspects if their Kurdish guards withdrew, further raising fears that jihadists could escape amid the offensive.   The first phase of the Turkish attack is expected to begin along a 120km stretch between the border towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain – the same area that US forces evacuated on Donald Trump’s orders on Monday.  Turkey is likely to pound the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with artillery fire and airstrikes before beginning a ground incursion.  The bulk of the ground troops will likely come from Turkey’s Syrian rebel proxy groups but they will act with the support of Turkish commandos and under the cover of Turkish airpower. Turkish defence officials said they had removed a section of the concrete border wall in anticipation of the attack.  Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defence minister, said: “Our efforts concerning the offensive are continuing, the deployment, the preparations are continuing.” While the SDF proved adept at combatting Isil, they lack heavy weaponry and anti-aircraft equipment and are likely to struggle in a confrontation with Turkey’s modern military.

Their position has been further weakened after they agreed to demolish their fortifications in the area at the request of the US, which as recently as last weekend was still trying to broker a compromise to forestall a Turkish offensive.   

The SDF said Turkish troops shelled one of their positions near Ras al-Ain late on Tuesday night but that their forces suffered no casualties.  Meanwhile, Isil fighters attacked an SDF position in Raqqa, the former capital of their so-called caliphate, in an apparent effort to capitalise on the confusion caused by the looming Turkish attack.

US officials told the Washington Post they had no plans to intervene and seize control of the string of Kurdish prisons where thousands of Isil fighters, including British jihadists, are being held.  The SDF have warned they may have no choice but to abandon the prisons and send all available forces north to confront Turkish troops on the border. After initially appearing to wash his hands of the Kurds, he said Tuesday that “in no way have we abandoned the Kurds” and threatened economic sanctions on Turkey if there was “any unforced or unnecessary fighting”. Mr Erdoğan is expected to meet Mr Trump at the White House on November 13.