ISTANBUL – Turkey has begun its military offensive into northeastern Syria to force back Kurdish militants controlling the border area, days after President Donald Trump said the U.S. wouldn’t stand in the way.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the operation, code-named “Peace Spring,” on Twitter and said it would also target Islamic State. A small forward group of Turkish forces first entered Syria early Wednesday at two points along the frontier, close to the Syrian towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, according to a Turkish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Kurdish-led forces were on high alert and called on fighters to head for the frontier to defend the region against the Turkish offensive that is expected to involve tens of thousands of soldiers backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers from NATO’s second-largest army.
Turkey’s advance follows a dramatic reversal of U.S. policy. Trump told Erdogan in a phone call on Sunday that dozens of American troops who’d been working closely with Kurdish forces in the fight against Islamic State would pull back, effectively clearing the way for a Turkish incursion.
The White House statement appeared to surprise allies at home and abroad. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said they would defend their “own people,” potentially relegating the battle against Islamic State.
The Kurdish YPG militia that forms the backbone of the SDF has been one of America’s closest partners in the fight against Islamic State and is holding thousands of jihadi fighters and their families in camps and detention centers in northeastern Syria.
While Trump said Turkey would become responsible for the detainees, who include foreign fighters from Europe, it was not clear if there was a mechanism in place to transfer them to Turkish custody.
Trump drew criticism at home for his decision to hand responsibility for the jihadi prisoners to Turkey over concerns that chaos in northeastern Syria could allow Islamic State members to escape and regroup.
“Moved our 50 soldiers out,” Trump said in a Twitter post on Wednesday.”Turkey MUST take over captured ISIS fighters that Europe refused to have returned. The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!”
A number of Trump allies, including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, said the move was “a shot in the arm for the bad guys.” Analysts said a U.S. pullback could ultimately play into the hands of Russia, whose military intervention helped turn the tide of the Syrian civil war in favor of President Bashar Assad. Syria’s Kurds have said in the past that they would consider a deal with Assad if the U.S. withdraws.
Turkey sees the YPG as a threat due to its link to the separatist PKK, another Kurdish group the Turkish government been battling for decades. It’s considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union.
Its offensive into northern Syria first aims to surround towns in a strip of border territory, before pushing further south in an effort to dismantle any chance of a Kurdish state emerging on its doorstep, according to two Turkish officials, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive military planning.
The first targets will be the Syrian towns of Kobani, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, all held by the YPG and located along the former Berlin-Baghdad railway that for hundreds of miles forms the frontier with Turkey, according to the officials.
The military aims to penetrate at least 30 kilometers (19 miles) deep into Syrian territory and secure the M-4 highway that runs parallel to the frontier all the way to Iraq in the east, they said. Erdogan was keen to act before winter set in and made it difficult for tanks to operate in muddy terrain.
“What aggravates the operational risks is the deep-running mistrust between Turkey and the U.S.,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a strategist at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara. “Turkey is very much worried about whether the U.S. will share intelligence with the YPG over Turkish troop positions to help them defend themselves.”
Turkish commanders expect to be confronted by a sophisticated foe after the battle-hardened YPG were armed by the U.S. and other Western militaries to help fight Islamic State, they said. Erdogan has chastised Washington for backing the Kurds, but he only pushed ahead with the operation after Trump reversed years of U.S. policy.
“YPG militants have two options: They can defect or we will have stop them from disrupting our counter-ISIS efforts,” Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s chief of communications, wrote on Twitter early Wednesday.