Turkey Begins Bombing Northeast Syria
Ankara launches airstrikes as the Trump administration tries to distance itself from Turkey’s move.
Turkey launched a massive offensive in northeastern Syria on Wednesday, hours after Turkish officials informed the U.S. embassy the operation was imminent.
Turkey began air and artillery strikes on Syrian border towns, including Ras al-Ain, Tell Abyad, and Qamshli, on Wednesday, according to officials with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its political arm, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC). Turkey also began bombing locations as far as 25 miles (40 km) inside northeast Syria, including Katouf and Ain Issa, where the SDF and SDC headquarters are located, officials confirmed.
The Kurds have asked U.S. and international officials for help defending against Turkey, but received no answer, Bassam Saker, the SDC representative to the United States, told Foreign Policy. The border towns are being evacuated as reports emerged of civilian casualties, Saker said.
“We are worried this will be a repeat of what happened in Afrin,” Saker said, referring to Turkey’s bloody campaign on the town in western Syria last year. “It will be a catastrophe.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the military operation on Twitter Wednesday, just days after U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to give Ankara the green light with an announcement that the U.S. military will withdraw from the border.
“Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” Erdogan tweeted. “#OperationPeaceSpring will neutralize terror threats against Turkey and lead to the establishment of a safe zone, facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to their homes.”
(Foreign Policy will be further updating this story as the situation develops.)
The operation began as the U.S. administration sought to walk back Trump’s surprise Sunday announcement, following a telephone call with Erdogan, that he was ordering the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Syrian border with Turkey, paving the way for Ankara to move forward with a potentially devastating attack on America’s Kurdish allies.
U.S. State Department officials told Kurdish leaders on Tuesday that any Turkish attack would be met by harsh economic and political sanctions, Saker said. The mostly Kurdish SDF is responsible for liberating northeast Syria from the Islamic State.
But it appears Turkey has not been dissuaded by the threat of U.S. sanctions. Turkish officials informed the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday that the operation would begin within 24 hours, a senior U.S. administration official told Foreign Policy. Two Kurdish officials confirmed that timeline. Meanwhile, Turkey began shelling an SDF border outpost earlier in the day.
“The border areas of northeast Syria are on the edge of a possible humanitarian catastrophe,” said Gen. Mazloum Kobani, the commander of the SDF, in a statement on Twitter. “This attack will spill the blood of thousands of innocent civilians.”
In another sign of an impending humanitarian crisis, the United Nations and Amnesty International urged all parties to refrain from carrying out attacks on civilians. In a statement, Amnesty International’s Middle East research director Lynn Maalouf noted that both Turkish and Kurdish forces “have a track record of carrying out indiscriminate attacks in Syria that have killed scores of civilians.”
“As in other parts of Syria, scores of civilians in northeast Syria have already suffered from the impact of successive military offensives, multiple displacements and dire living conditions,” Maalouf said. “Turkey has an obligation under international humanitarian law to take all possible measures to protect civilians and to ensure they have access to humanitarian aid.”
Turkish-backed forces are moving toward three axes of attack along the Turkey-Syria border, according to information provided to Foreign Policy. At the same time, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime forces are moving toward the front lines with the northern Syrian city of Manbij in Aleppo province, with the goal of taking the area by the end of the week.
In preparation for the attack, Kurdish fighters were moving north toward the border “in significant numbers,” the senior administration official said Tuesday. The redeployment leaves few forces to guard prisons across the country overflowing with Islamic State fighters and fend off the remnants of the terrorist group.
Indeed, the Islamic State on Tuesday conducted multiple suicide bombings on SDF positions in the city of Raqqa, according to the group.
The administration official also noted that Russia, which is backing Assad, also stands to gain from Trump’s decision to allow Turkey to move into northeast Syria. After the United States leaves, Turkey will shift its focus from Idlib province in the west, allowing the regime, Russia, and Iran to move in, the official predicted.
Meanwhile, reports emerged that the SDF is considering partnering with Assad against Turkish forces. Assad has reached out to the Kurds in recent days, one Syrian source said.
“Who is not winning? The United States, our partners, and the prospect of future partners,” the official said.
U.S. administration officials tried to downplay Trump’s shift in policy. During a meeting between State Department and SDC representatives, U.S. officials stressed that the Sunday statement was not a “green light” for Turkey to invade, Saker said.
The comments reflect the administration’s attempts to clarify a series of presidential tweets since Sunday night, including one in which Trump appeared eager to reassure critics, including many of his fellow Republicans, that he was not caving to Erdogan’s demands. In that tweet, Trump promised to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if Ankara “does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits.”
Defense Department and White House officials also attempted to thread the policy needle on Monday. Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman pushed back on characterization of the Sunday statement as an endorsement of the Turkish operation, saying that senior leaders would reiterate to their Turkish counterparts “the possible destabilizing consequences.”
A senior administration official sought to minimize Trump’s initial tweet in a phone call with reporters late Monday, saying the president decided to move the “50 to 100” U.S. special operators near the border out of the area so they would not be in danger if fighting breaks out between the Turks and the Kurds.
“For anyone to characterize the fact that the president is taking care to make sure that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are safe as somehow being a green light for a massacre is irresponsible and doesn’t comport with the reality of the situation,” a senior administration official told reporters during the Monday phone call.
When asked whether representatives from the Pentagon or U.S. Central Command had spoken to their Kurdish counterparts about the situation, a Defense Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy that “we are in close communication with our Coalition partners, with particular focus on those who have equities in Syria.”
The Turkish government on Tuesday pushed back on Trump’s threats to impose sanctions on the country’s already fragile economy in the event of an attack on the Kurds. In a speech at a university in Ankara, Turkey’s vice president, Fuat Oktay, said his country would “not react to threats.”
Since Sunday night’s announcement, the president and various U.S. government agencies have sent wildly conflicting signals. Early Monday, Trump doubled down on his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the border, acknowledging the Kurds’ role in the fight against the Islamic State but saying that they “were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so.” But then on Tuesday he seemed to soften his stance, tweeting that “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.”
However, he also praised Turkey, which has repeatedly threatened to annihilate the Kurds, as a “big trading partner” and “an important member in good standing of NATO.”
Saker said he trusts that the State Department and Congress are opposed to a Turkish invasion of northeast Syria and will act as a check on the president. Indeed, lawmakers from both parties have come out publicly to criticize Trump’s decision and promised to impose sanctions on Turkey if Ankara attacks the Kurds.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, normally one of the president’s most vocal supporters, said the move is “a big win for Iran and Assad, a big win for ISIS,” and promised to do everything in his power to sanction Turkey “if they step one foot in northeastern Syria.”
Turkey has long objected to U.S. support for the SDF, which is responsible for liberating northeast Syria from the Islamic State and is currently guarding thousands of the militant group’s fighters in prisons across the country. The SDF is a mostly Kurdish fighting group that Ankara views as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey.
Now that U.S. troops are no longer blocking a Turkish operation, the SDC fears that Ankara will launch a bloody campaign to annihilate the Kurdish population of northeast Syria, as it did last year when it swept into the northwest town of Afrin.
Erdogan has also proposed resettling millions of Syrian refugees, including those from Arab communities, in the northeast border area, a move that experts worry could upend the delicate ethnic balance in the historically Kurdish region.
Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and former senior Obama administration official, said the proposal is against international law.
“All across Northern Syria, hundreds of thousands of displaced and conflict-affected people who survived the horrors of the [Islamic State] era will now face the risk of new violence between Turkish and SDF forces,” Konyndyk said. “Turkey may also use the zones as a pretext for involuntarily expelling (or ‘refouling’) thousands of Syrian refugees who have found safety inside Turkey—which is prohibited by international law.”
This story has been updated to reflect ongoing developments.
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman