Turkey intensified its air and artillery strikes in northeast Syria on Friday (Oct 11), escalating an offensive against Kurdish militia that has drawn warnings of humanitarian catastrophe and turned some Republican lawmakers against US President Donald Trump.
The Kurds, who recaptured swathes of northeastern Syria from Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) with the backing of the United States, say the Turkish assault could allow the jihadist group to re-emerge.
In its first big attack since the assault began, ISIS claimed responsibility for a deadly car bomb in Qamishli, the biggest city in the Kurdish-held area, even as the city came under heavy Turkish shelling.
Five ISIS fighters fled a jail there, and foreign women from the group being held in a camp torched tents and attacked guards with sticks and stones, the Kurds said.
The Turkish incursion was launched after Trump spoke by phone with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan and withdrew US troops who had been fighting alongside Kurdish forces against ISIS. It has opened a new front in the eight-year Syrian civil war and drawn international condemnation.
Erdogan dismissed the criticism, saying the assault against Turkey’s Kurdish militia foes “will not stop … no matter what anyone says.”
A war monitor gave a death toll of more than 100 from the first days of the assault. The United Nations said 100,000 people had fled their homes.
Fending off accusations he had abandoned the Kurds, who are loyal allies of the United States, Trump suggested Washington could mediate in the conflict.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Trump had authorized the drafting of “very significant” new sanctions against Turkey, a NATO ally, adding Washington was not activating the curbs now but would do so if necessary.
Sanctions have been demanded by Republican congressional critics of Trump’s policy.
“We can shut down the Turkish economy if we need to,” Mnuchin said.
Trump’s defence secretary, Mark Esper, told a briefing that the United States had not abandoned the Kurds. US officials had urged Turkey to halt the assault, Esper said, warning of”dramatic harm” to bilateral relations.
On Friday, Turkish warplanes and artillery struck around Syria’s Ras al Ain, one of two border towns that have been the focus of the offensive, now in its third day.
Reuters reporters heard gunfire there from across the frontier in the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar.
Hundreds of kilometres further east along the frontier, a car bomb blew up outside a restaurant in Qamishli as the city came under fierce Turkish shelling. Kurdish authorities said the bomb killed three civilians and wounded nine. ISIS claimed responsibility, saying it had targeted Kurdish fighters.
A convoy of 20 armoured vehicles carrying Turkish-allied Syrian rebels entered Syria from Ceylanpinar. Some made victory signs, shouting “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) and waving Syrian rebel flags as they advanced towards Ras al Ain.
Some 120km to the west, Turkey resumed shelling near Tel Abyad town, a witness said. The Kurdish fighters called it the most intense fighting in three days of battles there.
Overnight, clashes erupted along the entire 400km stretch of border from Ain Diwar at the Iraqi frontier to Kobane. “The whole border was on fire,” said Marvan Qamishlo, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Turkish forces have seized nine villages near Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad, said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war. It reported at least 54 fighters with the SDF, 42 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels and 17 civilians had been killed.
Turkey says two Turkish soldiers have been killed. Turkish authorities said on Friday two people were killed and three wounded by mortar shelling in the border town of Suruc, while eight were killed and 35 wounded in a mortar and rocket attack on Turkey’s border town of Nusaybin.
A Kurdish official who oversees aid work in northeast Syria, Khaled Ibrahim, said water to Hasaka city and nearby areas was cut by Turkish shelling that damaged a pumping station. It had provided safe water for at least 400,000 people, UNICEF said.
Turkey says its aim is to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as an enemy for its links to insurgents in Turkey.
It aims to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria, where it can resettle many of the 3.6 million refugees it has been hosting.
Erdogan said the assault would continue “until all the terrorists go further south than the 32km border (strip) that Mr. Trump mentioned,” he said.
The Turkish president threatened to send refugees to Europe if the European Union did not back his assault. That prompted a furious response from the EU.
“We will never accept that refugees are weaponised and used to blackmail us,” European Council President Donald Tusk wrote on Twitter. France said sanctions against Turkey would be discussed at an EU summit next week.
Responding to the international criticism, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu defended Ankara’s record of intervention in Syria, telling the New York Times in an interview that Turkey had provided schools, hospitals and other services in other areas under its control.
The Kurdish YPG is the main fighting element of the SDF, which has acted as the principal allies of the United States in a campaign that recaptured territory from ISIS.
The SDF now holds most of the territory that once made up ISIS’s “caliphate” in Syria, and has been keeping thousands of fighters from the jihadist group in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.
RARE REPUBLICAN CRITICISM OF TRUMP
The SDF’s Qamishlo said five ISIS fighters had escaped from jail in Qamishli after nearby Turkish shelling.
In the al-Hol camp, home to thousands of women and children who emerged from the last ISIS strongholds, Qamishlo said an uprising had taken place among foreigners.
“The Daesh (ISIS) women rose against the internal security forces at al-Hol, they set ablaze tents and attacked the administrative and security offices there with stones and sticks,” Qamishlo said.
In the United States, Trump’s decision to withhold protection from the Kurds has been one of the few issues to prompt criticism from his fellow Republicans.
Trump said on Twitter on Thursday: “We have one of three choices: Send in thousands of troops and win Militarily, hit Turkey very hard Financially and with Sanctions, or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds!”.
“I hope we can mediate,” Trump said later.
Western countries’ rejection of the offensive creates a rift in NATO. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he expected Turkey to act with restraint. Cavusoglu said Ankara expected “strong solidarity” from the alliance.