CAIRO – Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies have begun a military offensive against Kurdish armed forces in northern Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Wednesday.
“The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army (formerly the Free Syrian Army), just launched Operation Peace Spring against PKK/YPG and Daesh (Islamic State) terrorists in northern Syria,” Erdogan said in a statement shared on Twitter.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry later tweeted that the nation’s armed forces and the Syrian National Army launched the operation to the east of the Euphrates River, using the new name for Syrian militia groups that had earlier fought on Ankara’s side in operations in 2016 and 2018.
Kurdish fighters, for their part, confirmed Wednesday that Turkish forces had begun their military ground assault in northern Syria but said they had managed to halt that offensive in the border town of Tel Abyad.
“Ground attack by Turkish forces has been repelled by SDF fighters,” the acronym for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, that alliance’s spokesman, Mustafa Bali, said Wednesday on Twitter.
He said the assault was halted in Tel Abyad and that there has been “no advance as of now” by the Turkish troops.
Bali had said earlier Wednesday that the Turkish army had shelled an area near the al-Chirkin prison, where members of the Islamic State terror organization are being held.
At least eight people, including five civilians, have died as a result of the Turkish army’s bombing campaign in northern Syria, the Kurds say.
Turkish airstrikes and artillery barrages have targeted several towns of northeastern Syria, including Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, where Ankara is looking to install a 32-kilometer-deep, 480-km-long “safe zone.”
That zone is intended for the resettlement of some two million Syrian refugees who took refuge in Turkey from their nation’s eight-year civil war. It also is to serve as a buffer against the threat of Kurdish groups that Ankara labels terrorists.
Another target of the airstrikes was Qamishli, also located in the proposed safe zone and one of the most populated cities controlled by the Kurdish-led forces, although Syrian government forces also dominate another nearby area, including the airport.
The airstrikes came just after Turkey officially announced the start of a military operation in the Kurdish-controlled northeastern border region of Syria.
Ankara regards the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the biggest group in the SDF – as a terror organization linked to its more habitual enemies, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has mounted a smoldering insurrection against the state in mainly Kurdish southeastern Turkey for more than 30 years.
The United States had been allied with the YPG in the fight against the Islamic State, but the White House announced Sunday that it would not hinder Turkey’s planned operation in northern Syria.
President Donald Trump has said his administration is in the process of withdrawing all troops from Syria, although thus far the US has only moved 50 soldiers from forward positions and still has 1,000 troops in northern Syria.
The territory in which Turkey is seeking to establish its “safe zone” is currently controlled by the YPG, which to Ankara’s deep displeasure has established a de facto autonomous administration there.
The remainder of northern Syria, from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean, is already under the control of Turkish troops following Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 north of Aleppo province and Operation Olive Branch in the majority-Kurdish Afrin enclave of northwestern Syria in 2018.