ISTANBUL: Turkey launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria on Wednesday (Oct 9), with air strikes hitting the border town of Ras al Ain, causing civilian casualties.
President Tayyip Erdogan, announcing the start of the action, said the aim was to eliminate what he called a "terror corridor" on Turkey's southern border.
Turkey had been poised to advance into northeast Syria since US troops began vacating the area in an abrupt policy shift by US President Donald Trump, widely criticised in Washington as a betrayal of America's Kurdish militia allies.
"The Turkish armed forces and Syrian National Army (rebel groups backed by Ankara) have began Operation Peace Spring in the north of Syria," Erdogan wrote on Twitter.
Following the announcement, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said Turkish warplanes struck its region in the northeast, sparking "huge panic among people".
"Turkish warplanes have started to carry out air strikes on civilian areas," SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said on Twitter.
Several large explosions rocked Ras al Ain, just across the border across from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, a CNN Turk reporter said, adding that the sound of planes could be heard above. Smoke was rising from buildings in Ras al Ain, he said.
Erdogan said the offensive aimed to eliminate a "terror corridor" along the southern Turkish border.
The offensive would aim to eliminate threats from the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and the Islamic State militants, and enable the return of Syrian refugees in Turkey after the formation of a "safe zone" in the area, he said.
"Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area," Erdogan said on Twitter.
"We will preserve Syria's territorial integrity and liberate local communities from terrorists."
World powers fear the action could open a new chapter in Syria's war and worsen regional turmoil.
Erdogan earlier told Russia's President Vladimir Putin in a phone call that the operation would help peace and stability in Syria.
But Syria said it was determined to confront any Turkish aggression by all legitimate means.
Turkey views Kurdish YPG fighters in northeast Syria as terrorists because of their ties to militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey, an influx of non-Kurdish Syrians would help it secure a buffer against its main security threat.
Amid deepening humanitarian concerns, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all parties in northeast Syria to exercise maximum restraint and protect civilians.
Kurdish-led forces denounced the US policy shift as a "stab in the back". Trump denied he had abandoned the forces, the most capable US partners in fighting Islamic State in Syria.
Senator Lindsey Graham vowed on Wednesday that Congress will inflict a cost on Turkey for its offensive against Syria's Kurds as the usually loyal ally of President Donald Trump sharply criticised US policy.
"Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration. This move ensures the reemergence of ISIS. Will lead effort in Congress to make Erdogan pay a heavy price," the senior Republican tweeted.
EU, FRANCE RESPONDS
EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday also demanded Turkey halts its military operation against Kurdish militants in northern Syria, telling Ankara the bloc would not pay for any so-called "safe zone" that might be created.
Juncker told the European Parliament he recognised Turkey had "security concerns" along the border. But he warned the military action would not lead to a "good result", saying a political solution was the only way to end the Syrian conflict.
"I call on Turkey as well as the other actors to act with restraint and to stop operations already, as we are speaking, under way," Juncker said.
"I have to say if the Turkish plan involves the creation of a so-called safe zone, don't expect the European Union to pay for any of it."
On Wednesday, France "strongly condemned" Turkey's offensive in northeast Syria, European Affairs minister Amelie de Montchalin said.
De Montchalin said France, Germany and Britain were working on a joint declaration "which will be extremely clear on the fact that we very strongly condemn" the Turkish campaign against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria.
The minister also told parliament's foreign affairs commission that France would bring up the matter at the United Nations Security Council.
French President Emmanuel Macron had earlier expressed concern at the prospect of a Turkish army operation in areas controlled by the Kurdish forces, who have led the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria.
He hosted a senior Syrian Kurdish official, Ilham Ahmed, for talks on Tuesday "to show that France stands alongside the SDF as they are partners in the fight against Daesh (IS) and that we are very worried by the possibility of a Turkish operation in Syria," a presidential aide told AFP.