AKCAKALE, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies attacked Kurdish militia in northeast Syria on Wednesday, pounding them with air strikes and artillery before starting a cross-border ground operation that could transform an eight-year-old war.
The assault began days after U.S. President Donald Trump pulled American troops out of the way, prompting denunciations from senior members of his own Republican Party who say he abandoned the Syrian Kurds, loyal allies of Washington.
“The Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian National Army have launched the land operation into the east of the Euphrates river as part of the Operation Peace Spring,” the Turkish defence ministry tweeted after nightfall, following a day of pounding the area from the air.
Turkish media reported troops entering Syria at four points, two of them close to the Syrian town of Tel Abyad and two close to Ras al Ain further east.
Turkey told the United Nations Security Council in a letter seen by Reuters that its military operation would be “proportionate, measured and responsible.” The 15-member body will meet on Thursday to discuss Syria at the request of the five European members, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland.
The 22-member Arab League said it will hold an emergency meeting on Saturday.
Thousands of people fled Ras al Ain towards Hasaka province, held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Turkish air strikes killed at least five civilians and three fighters from the SDF and wounded dozens of civilians, the SDF said.
Reuters journalists at Akcakale on the Turkish side of the frontier watched as explosions struck Tel Abyad. After dark, the red flare of rockets could be seen fired across the border into Tel Abyad, and flames burned near the town. Explosions from Tel Abyad could be heard eight hours into the bombardment. A witness reached by telephone said civilians were fleeing en masse.
SDF fighters repelled a ground attack by Turkish troops in Tel Abyad, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said on Twitter.
The assault on the Kurds - for years Washington’s main allies on the ground in Syria - is potentially one of the biggest shifts in years in the Syrian war that has drawn in global and regional powers. The Kurds played a leading role in capturing territory from Islamic State, and now hold the largest swathe of Syria outside of the hands of President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia, Assad’s strongest foreign ally, urged dialogue between Damascus and Syria’s Kurds.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday U.S. troops started to withdraw after a phone call he had with Trump.
Trump 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.
But one of Trump’s closest fellow Republican allies, Senator Lindsey Graham, said failing to support the Kurds would be “the biggest mistake of his presidency” and unveiled a framework for sanctions on Turkey with Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen.
“While the Administration refuses to act against Turkey, I expect strong bipartisan support,” Graham said in a statement.
Representative Liz Cheney, a Republican hawk, said: “The U.S. is abandoning our ally the Kurds, who fought ISIS (Islamic State) on the ground and helped protect the U.S. homeland. This decision aids America’s adversaries, Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and paves the way for a resurgence of ISIS.”
Trump’s decision was denounced by some Kurds as a “stab in the back”.
The SDF controls much of the territory that was once held by Islamic State and holds thousands of Islamic State fighters and tens of thousands of their relatives in detention.
The U.S. pullout has prompted concerns that some of those prisoners might escape in the chaos of the Turkish incursion.
One of the prisons where ISIS detainees are held was struck by a Turkish air strike, the SDF said on Twitter.
A U.S. official said the U.S. military had taken custody on Wednesday of two high-profile Islamic State militants being held by Kurdish-led fighters and moved them out of Syria.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the individuals were being held in a secure location but offered no further details.
The SDF has halted operations against Islamic State because of the Turkish offensive, two U.S. officials and a Kurdish source said.
Turkey had been poised to enter northeast Syria since the U.S. troops who had been fighting alongside Kurdish-led forces against Islamic State started to leave.
Erdogan, announcing the start of the action, said the aim was to eliminate what he called a “terror corridor” on Turkey’s southern border.
World powers fear the Turkish action could open a new chapter in Syria’s war and worsen regional turmoil. Ankara has said it intends to create a “safe zone” in order to return millions of refugees to Syrian soil.
In the build-up to the offensive, Syria had said it was determined to confront any Turkish aggression.
A Turkish security source told Reuters the military offensive opened with air strikes. Turkish howitzer fire then hit bases and ammunition depots of the Kurdish YPG militia. Turkey says the YPG, the main component of the U.S.-backed SDF, is a terrorist group linked to Kurdish insurgents that have fought in Turkey for years.
The artillery strikes, which also targeted YPG gun and sniper positions, were aimed at sites far from residential areas, the Turkish source said.
Turkish media said several mortar shells had landed on the Turkish side of the border but there were no casualties.
The Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria declared a state of “general mobilisation” before calling on its people to head towards the border “to fulfil their moral duty and show resistance in these sensitive, historic moments”.
Erdogan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun said Turkey had no ambition in northeastern Syria except to neutralise the threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate the local people from what he called “the yoke of armed thugs”.
Turkey was taking over leadership of the fight against Islamic State in Syria, he said.
Reporting by Mert Ozkan in AKCAKALE, Turkey; Additional reporting by Orhan Coksun, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay in Ankara, Dominic Evans and Daren Butler in Istanbul, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Phil Stewart in Washington, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Writing by Peter Graff, Alistair Bell and Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Grant McCool & Shri Navaratnam