Erdogan: Turkey has begun invasion into Syria to battle Kurds after US pulls back forces

Turkey has launched a long-planned military operation in northeastern Syria, targeting the Syrian Kurdish fighters that helped the United States defeat ISIS.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced via Twitter on Wednesday that the incursion has begun, with a mission to "prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border."

The move comes just days after U.S. President Donald Trump's announcement that American troops would withdraw from the region and hand control to the Kurds' sworn enemy, the Turkish government.

“The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched #OperationPeaceSpring against PKK/YPG and Daesh [Isis] terrorists in northern Syria. Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” Erdoğan tweeted on Wednesday.

Erdogan said the operation will "neutralize terror threats against Turkey and lead to the establishment of a safe zone, facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to their homes."

Turkey considers the mainly-Kurdish militia to be a terrorist organization.

"We will preserve Syria's territorial integrity and liberate local communities from terrorists," he tweeted.

Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara considers an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), confirmed shortly after Erdoğan’s announcement that Turkish warplanes had already begun attacking the region, creating a “huge panic among people”. An SDF soldier shared photographs of plumes of smoke which he said was the result of airstrikes and artillery fire near the border town of Ras al-Ayn.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said civilians in Ras al-Ayn and neighbouring villages had begun fleeing deeper inside the Kurdish-held region. Away from the border Qamishli and Ain Issa, key administrative centres for the SDF, were hit by airstrikes, a spokesman said.

Turkish forces already crossed the border near the other key border town Tal Abyad earlier in the day.

Turkey says it is seeking to establish a 32km-deep safe zone in the border region to secure the country against the threat of what it says are Kurdish terror groups as well as Isis.

Turkey has been massing troops for days along the border with Syria. To the south of Syria’s Kurdish-held region, forces belonging to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, have also been on the move, leaving the SDF pinched between the two.

Around 100-150 US troops have been moved away from key positions on the Syrian-Turkish border, the Guardian understands, pulled back to areas outside Turkey’s intended path. No troops have left the country yet, and convoys of US supplies have continued to enter the region from Iraq.

Trump’s decision to pull back US troops from Syria leaving the SDF vulnerable to attack has been widely criticised by allies and even some of the president’s staunchest Republican allies.

The president defended the move on Wednesday, citing a focus on the “BIG PICTURE!” in a tweet. “GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY!” he said.

Critics have said the withdrawal risks a humanitarian catastrophe as thousands flee the expected fighting , as well as the reemergence of Isis. The SDF says it has already withdrawn some soldiers from the prisons and camps holding Isis members to focus on defending against Turkey, raising fears that Isis sleeper cells could attack and liberate those inside.

Isis claimed an overnight suicide attack by two of its fighters in its former capital Raqqa, which killed and injured 25 people.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Turkish government said the US president had handed it the leadership of the military campaign against Isis, and warned its forces would be crossing into Syria “shortly”.

In response, Kurdish leaders in the area issued a general mobilisation call, urging civlians to “head to the border with Turkey... to resist during this delicate historical moment”. The SDF has resumed digging trenches and tunnels in the border areas, covering streets with metal canopies and stockpiling tyres to burn to block the cameras of Turkish drones.

Kurdish officials also said on Wednesday that they have asked Russia, Assad’s major ally, to facilitate a dialogue with Damascus. The Kurds risk losing the autonomy they won during Syria’s eight-year-old war by realigning with the Syrian regime but such a move is likely to stave off the worst of a Turkish attack.

A secondary goal of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring is to repatriate up to 2m of the country’s 3.6m Syrian refugees inside the planned border zone. The Kurds say Ankara’s real goal is to dilute their demographic dominance of the northeast with an influx of mostly Sunni Arab refugees originally from other parts of Syria.

The SDF, led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), has denounced Washington's move as a "stab in the back".

Turkey considers the YPG a "terrorist" group.

The United Nations, the European Union and other world powers have expressed alarm over the Turkish plan, warning that any military action could exacerbate the suffering of Syrians already beleaguered by eight years of conflict.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday warned of the risks of Washington sending mixed signals on an American withdrawal from northern Syria.

"(US actions in Syria) are full of contradictions and reflect our American colleagues' inability to reach agreements," Mr Lavrov said on a visit to Kazakhstan's capital Nur-Sultan.

"Americans have violated their promises many times."

He also accused the United States of violating Syria's territorial integrity and seeking to create "quasi-states" in northern Syria to the displeasure of Arab tribes living on those territories.

"This is a very dangerous game," Lavrov said.

Russia's top diplomat, who visited Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil earlier this week, said he discussed the topic with the Kurdish leaders in Iraq.

"They are extremely alarmed that such a lightweight treatment of this extremely delicate subject could ignite the entire region," Lavrov said.

"This must be avoided at all costs".

Meanwhile, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker urged Turkey to halt its military operation and warned the European Union would not help finance the creation of any "safe zone" in northeastern Syria.

"I call on Turkey as well as on the other actors to act with restraint and to stop operations already, as we are speaking, underway," Juncker told EU legislators.

The EU is paying Turkey more than $6bn to help the country cope with millions of Syrian refugees hosted on its territory in exchange for stopping migrants leaving for Europe. However, Ankara is seeking more money amid concerns that thousands of Syrians could soon cross its border.

Also, French President Emmanuel Macron is very worried at the prospect of a Turkish army operation into areas controlled by Kurdish forces in northern Syria, his office said.

Macron met senior Syrian Kurdish official Ilham Ahmed at the Elysee Palace on Monday "to show that France stands alongside the SDF as they are partners in the fight against ISIL and that we are very worried by the possibility of a Turkish operation in Syria," a presidential aide told AFP.

The aide added that Paris would "pass on these messages" to the Turkish authorities.

Macron has on occasion irritated Turkey by hosting in Paris members of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council.

Ankara insists such groups are merely fronts for the YPG, an arm of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a three-and-a-half decade armed campaign against Turkey.

Arab League chief criticises Turkey's Syria push

The head of the Arab League said he was alarmed at Turkey's planned military offensive into northeastern Syria.

In a statement on Wednesday, Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that such an invasion would be a "blatant violation of Syria's sovereignty and threatens Syria's integrity".

He added that Turkey's planned incursion also threatens to inflame further conflicts in eastern and northern Syria, and "could allow for the revival" of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) armed group.

Iran calls on Turkey to show restraint

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani called on Turkey to show restraint and avoid military action in northern Syria, and said US forces should leave the region.

"Turkey is rightfully worried about its southern borders. We believe that a correct path should be adopted to remove those concerns," state news agency IRNA quoted Rouhani as saying.

"American troops must leave the region," he added. "Kurds in Syria... should support the Syrian army."

Iran holds unannounced military drill near Turkey border

Iran's army began an unannounced military drill in the northwest of the country bordering Turkey, Iranian Students News Agency ISNA reported, as Turkish troops prepare to enter the territory of Iran's ally Syria.

ISNA said the drill included rapid reaction units, mobile and offense brigades, and helicopters from the Army Ground Force's Air Unit.

Meanwhile, Turkey's Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said his country's preparations and deployments for its planned military offensive are continuing.

It was not clear where Akar was speaking from.

Sources: The Guardian/ abcnews / Aljazeera / LNP

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