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'Deeply troubled': Tánaiste urges Turkey to refrain from assault on Syrian Kurdish forces

The US has been accused of abandoning Kurdish troops as Russia warns that the ‘whole region could be ignited’.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the attack on Twitter
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the attack on Twitter
Image: PA Images

Updated Oct 9th 2019, 7:31 PM

TURKEY HAS LAUNCHED a broad assault on Kurdish-controlled areas in northeastern Syria, with intensive bombardment paving the way for an invasion made possible by the withdrawal of US troops.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the attack on Twitter and soon after jets and artillery targeted Kurdish positions along the full width of the border, sending thousands of civilians fleeing their homes.

“The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army just launched #OperationPeaceSpring,” Erdogan wrote on Twitter in English.

The move had seemed inevitable since US President Donald Trump on Sunday announced a military pullback from the border, but the attack triggered international condemnation and an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council set for tomorrow.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said in a statement this evening that he is “deeply troubled” by Turkey’s announcement.

“The fight against ISIS made decisive progress earlier this year. Any unilateral military action against those groups which played a decisive frontline role in the fight against ISIS risks undermining this progress,” Coveney said.

He added that such action could also lead to further protracted instability and have serious humanitarian consequences.

We urge Turkey to refrain from this action.

The Tánaiste said Turkey’s security concerns about its own territory are understandable but “unilateral military action cannot be condoned”.

The White House today said the Turkish assault was a “bad idea” after it had effectively gifted Erdogan a green light and smashed the US alliance with the Kurdish forces, who spearheaded five years of ground battles against the Islamic State group in Syria.

‘Terror corridor ‘

The Syrian National Army is a group of rebels backed by Turkey. 

Erdogan said the offensive targeted Kurdish militants and the Islamic State group 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,” he wrote.

Turkey has long been planning military action against Kurdish forces in northern Syria due to their ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.

Moments after Ankara announced the start of the operation, an explosion was heard in a Syrian town near the Turkish border.

A cloud of white smoke rose over the Ras Al-Ain border area, an AFP correspondent said, adding that warplanes could be seen flying overhead, while dozens of civilians tried to flee. 

Turkey had earlier said it was planning to begin an offensive into northern Syria.

Istanbul had sent more armoured vehicles to the border with Syria, with a large convoy of dozens of vehicles seen in the Turkish town of Akcakale in Sanliurfa province.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said Turkish forces were attacking near the border.

“The Turkish military is shelling one of our points on #SereKaniye Border with Turkey,” the SDF said in a tweet late yesterday, referencing the key border town of Ras al-Ain.

It was one of the places from which US troops withdrew on Monday, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“There were no injuries to our forces. We didn’t respond to this unprovoked attack. We are prepared to defend the people and the people of NE #Syria,” the SDF said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today warned of the risks of Washington sending mixed signals.

The Kurds are “extremely alarmed” by US statements, he said, and fear that confusion could “ignite the whole region”. “This must be avoided at all costs,” Lavrov said.

Border skirmishes between Turkish and Kurdish forces have taken place before, and there was no indication the latest reported shelling was part of a broader offensive.

However, Fahrettin Altun, Turkey’s communications director, wrote in the Washington Post that Turkish military units would “cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly”.

Kurdish forces can either “defect” or Turkey will “have no choice but to stop them from disrupting our counter-Islamic State efforts”, he added.

Long-planned attack 

US President Donald Trump had blown hot and cold since a surprise announcement on Sunday that Washington was pulling back 50 to 100 “special operators” from Syria’s northern frontier.

The troops had served as a buffer preventing a long-planned attack by Turkey against Kurdish forces, who were crucial in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State group (Isis) but are viewed as terrorists by Ankara.

After appearing to give a green light to the Turkish invasion on Sunday, Trump later threatened to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it went too far.

But he also gave a warm account of Turkey in other tweets and announced that Erdogan would visit Washington on 13 November.

“So many people conveniently forget that Turkey is a big trading partner of the United States,” he said.

Ankara had already brushed aside Trump’s warnings, with Vice-President Fuat Oktay saying: “Turkey is not a country that will act according to threats.”

Turkey has always pushed hard against US support for Kurdish forces in Syria due to their links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has fought a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.

Kurds have been ‘tossed aside’ 

Meanwhile, the Syrian government has welcomed the upheaval, seeing an opportunity to bring the country’s Kurds back into its fold.

The Kurds have been “tossed aside” by Washington, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper.

Trump rejected that interpretation, tweeting: “We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters.”

The SDF says it lost some 11,000 fighters as the main frontline force against the Islamic State group.

Britain said it was “deeply concerned” by Turkey’s plans to attack Kurdish fighters, who lead the SDF.

Iran, a key backer of the Syrian government, also opposed a Turkish incursion, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif urging “respect for Syria’s territorial integrity” in a call to Ankara.

Source: BBC News/YouTube

‘Safe zone’ 

Russia’s security council said it was important to avoid hindering the peace process in Syria.

Turkey says it wants to establish a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border where it could send back some of the 3.6 million refugees from the eight-year civil war.

Erdogan said on Monday that the operation into Syria could “come any night without warning”.

Kurds argue that Ankara’s goal is to dilute their dominance in the region with an influx of mostly Sunni Arab refugees now living in Turkey.

Trump has faced a barrage of criticism, including from close allies in Washington, for appearing to leave the Kurds to their fate.

A Turkish attack also raises the spectre of what will happen to some 10,000 Islamic State group fighters currently held in Kurdish detention centres.

Around 2,000 of them are Isis “foreign fighters”, and Trump assailed US allies in Europe for not taking back their nationals.

If they escape or are released, there are fears that they could reconstitute Isis, less than one year after it was defeated and its “caliphate” disintegrated.

Trump declared that it would be the responsibility of Turkey and other countries to deal with Isis prisoners.

© AFP 2019  

Additional reporting from Adam Daly 

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