Turkey to continue assault against Syrian Kurdish forces

US piles pressure on Turkey as troops come under fire

Agence France-Presse . Ras Al-Ain | Published: 14:12, Oct 12,2019

 
 

An explosion and smoke are seen over the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 12, 2019. — Reuters photo

Battles raged in Syria as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to press on with a deadly assault against Kurdish forces, while the Pentagon said Friday US troops came under artillery fire from Turkish positions.

Erdogan’s pledge to keep up the offensive, which the UN says has displaced more than 100,000 people since it began on Wednesday, came as the US Treasury warned president Donald Trump was planning to activate ‘very powerful’ sanctions on Ankara.

Trump, whose order to pull back US troops from the border this week effectively triggered the intervention, has faced a firestorm of criticism for appearing to give a green light to the push.

Turkey is targeting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, a key US ally in the five-year battle to crush the Islamic State group.

A Pentagon spokesman confirmed an explosion within a few hundred meters of its post close to the northern Syrian border, in an area ‘known by the Turks to have US forces present’.

‘All US troops are accounted for with no injuries,’ Navy captain Brook DeWalt said in a statement. US forces had not withdrawn from their position near the town of Kobani, he said.

‘The US demands that Turkey avoid actions that could result in immediate defensive action,’ warned DeWalt.

Earlier Friday, US defence secretary Mark Esper ‘strongly encouraged’ Turkey to halt its offensive as a prelude to such negotiations, warning of ‘serious consequences’.

But Erdogan vowed the assault ‘will not stop’.

‘Now there are threats coming from left and right, telling us to stop this,’ he said. ‘We will not step back.’

Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said Trump had authorised — but not yet activated — new sanctions to dissuade Turkey from further offensive military action.

‘We can shut down the Turkish economy if we need to,’ he said.

Turkey’s third such operation since the start of the war in Syria has been met with international condemnation over what many see as the blatant US betrayal of the Kurdish forces, who have lost 11,000 fighters in the campaign against IS.

As the offensive went into its third day, the SDF were fending for themselves, trying to repulse multiple ground attacks along a roughly 120-kilometre stretch of the border.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said the Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies — mostly Sunni Arab ex-rebels — were launching air strikes, heavy artillery and rocket fire.

In Al-Hol, a camp holding relatives of IS suspects that lies outside the area targeted by Turkey, women started riots Friday that Kurdish forces swiftly put down.

The risk that thousands of the jihadists they still hold could break free on the back of the Turkish assault could yet spur the international community into action.

Ras al-Ain, Tal Abyad and other border towns between them have been almost emptied in a huge wave of displacement.

Most of those fleeing were heading east towards the city of Hasakeh, which has not been targeted by Turkey.

Erdogan hopes to create a buffer zone between the border and territory controlled by Syrian Kurdish forces, who have links with Turkey’s own Kurdish rebels.

He also plans to use the strip, which he envisions will be about 30 kilometres deep, as an area in which to send back some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees who live on Turkish soil.

Aid groups have warned of yet another humanitarian disaster in Syria’s eight-year-old war if the offensive is not stopped.

France, a key partner in the US-led anti-IS coalition, has threatened sanctions against NATO member Turkey.

Facing a backlash for appearing to green-light Turkey’s assault against Kurdish forces in Syria, United States president Donald Trump on Friday dialled up pressure on America’s NATO ally by threatening crippling sanctions.

The United States was moving to quash accusations of mixed messages and policy reversals over Turkey’s offensive into northeastern Syria, which began after Trump ordered US troops to pull back from the border.

Turkey is targeting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, a key US ally in the five-year battle to crush the Islamic State group. The SDF lost 11,000 fighters in the US-led campaign.

Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said Trump had authorised — but not yet activated — ‘very significant new sanctions’ to dissuade Turkey from further offensive military action.

Defence secretary Mark Esper weighed in forcefully, saying Turkey risked destabilising the region and accusing president Recep Tayyip Erdogan of taking ‘impulsive action.’

Esper ‘strongly encouraged’ Turkey to halt the offensive, warning of ‘serious consequences,’ adding that he and joint chiefs chairman Mark Milley had spoken directly to their Turkish counterparts.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress have united to back sanctions on Turkey if it launches a full assault on the SDF.

The series of US statements contrasted sharply with wayward signals sent by Washington since Trump said last Sunday that he expected Turkish troops to begin attacking.

The series of US statements contrasted sharply with wayward signals sent by Washington since Trump said last Sunday that he expected Turkish troops to begin attacking.

Erdogan wants to create a buffer zone between the border and territory controlled by Syrian Kurdish forces, who have links with Turkey’s own Kurdish rebels.

The US president initially voiced understanding of Turkey’s wish to launch the offensive before later warning that the operation should be ‘humane’ and offering to mediate.

He had come under heavy criticism, even among usually steadfast Republicans, over what many saw as the blatant betrayal of a faithful US ally.

But the choreographed US diplomatic effort to compel Turkey to minimise its offensive may have little impact on the ground.

Erdogan on Friday swiftly dismissed Esper’s call for Turkey to stop the offensive.

‘Now there are threats coming from left and right, telling us to stop this,’ Erdogan said. ‘We will not step back.’

Turkish forces pressed ahead on Friday, battling to seize towns on the third day of the operation that has forced 100,000 civilians to flee.

‘I have yet no indication that they are willing to stop,’ Esper admitted. Turkey has launched mostly air and artillery attacks on the SDF and had only used ‘limited’ ground forces, according to US military chiefs.

The Turkish action has not yet breached any ‘red lines’ set by Trump, though details of the criteria remain unclear.

‘We don’t want them killing a lot of people; if we have to use sanctions we will,’ Trump said on Friday, giving no further details.

A few hours later, the Pentagon confirmed that US troops near the northern Syrian border came under artillery fire from Turkish positions.

No US personnel were hurt, but Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Brook DeWalt warned Ankara against ‘actions that could result in immediate defensive action.’

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday that the civilian death toll was 17 on the Syrian side, while 17 have also been killed in Turkey.

According to the Observatory, 54 fighters from the SDF have also been killed while Turkey has reported the deaths of four soldiers.

‘Every concern I had about president Trump’s Syria decision is coming true in spades,’ said Lindsey Graham, a loyal Republican senator and a leading voice on US foreign policy.

The offensive, the third such Turkish operation since the start of the war in Syria, has been met with fierce international condemnation.

But Trump has portrayed his decision to pull back troops as part of his election pledge to end US involvement in ‘ridiculous endless wars.’

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