Turkey launched airstrikes against Kurdish forces Wednesday in northern Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reported.
The sudden airstrikes are causing a “huge panic” among the people in the region, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted.
On the border, Turkish military forces are amassing with plans to cross into Syrian territory “shortly” to begin targeting Kurdish fighters in the region, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said Wednesday.
The Turkish government has been planning the offensive for weeks and received support from U.S. President Donald Trump this week when he said U.S. forces would not stand in the way.
“The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched Operation Peace Spring,” Erdogan tweeted. “Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area.”
The Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army [FSA], will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly,” presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun wrote in a Washington Post column.
“Turkey has no ambition in northeastern Syria except to neutralize a long-standing threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate the local population from the yoke of armed thugs.”
The Kurds released a statement calling on the international community to step in to avoid an “impending humanitarian disaster.”
The controversial decision by Trump not to interfere and his pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria drew criticism from Middle East experts who see the moves as a betrayal toward the Kurds, which have previously been U.S. allies.
Trump said Wednesday he has withdrawn 50 U.S. troops from northern Syria ahead of the Turkish offensive.
“Fighting between various groups that has been going on for hundreds of years,” he tweeted. “USA should never have been in Middle East. Moved our 50 soldiers out. Turkey MUST take over captured [IS] fighters that Europe refused to have returned. The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!”
Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring is planned for east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria against Kurdish fighters, which Ankara considers terrorist. Turkish leaders say Kurdish groups pose a great threat to Syria’s future.
Turkish troops have been gathering on its side of the Syria border since Monday night, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said. Reporters in the area cited dozens of military vehicles moving toward the border.
“The transfers and military operations are ongoing,” Akar said. “We are following the process closely with the commanders.”
Ankara’s goal is to establish a 19-mile safe zone for 2 million Syrian refugees. One concern is what could happen if guards monitoring Islamic State captives at a Kurdish prison leave their posts to join the fight against Erdogan’s forces.
The imminent offensive is the third major military operation Turkey has conducted in Syria since 2016.