ANKARA: Turkish forces pushed deeper into northeastern Syria on Friday, the third day of Ankara’s offensive against US-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters, as casualties mounted, international criticism of the campaign intensified and thousands of civilians fled the violence.
The UN said the attack had forced around 100,000 people to flee their homes and that there were many other humanitarian consequences to the assault. It said a water station servicing 400,000 people in the city of Hasakeh and surrounding areas was out of service.
Turkey said it captured more Kurdish-held villages in the border region, while a camp for displaced residents about 12 kilometers (7 miles) from the frontier was evacuated after artillery shells landed nearby amid intense clashes. Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis, with nearly a half-million people at risk near the border.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said the military intends to move 30 kilometers (19 miles) into northern Syria and that its operation will last until all “terrorists are neutralized.” NATO member Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters to be terrorists linked to a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey and says the offensive is a counterterrorism operation necessary for its own national security.
US President Donald Trump has warned Turkey to act with moderation and safeguard civilians, and the Pentagon said the operation is a threat to progress in combatting Daesh militants and a potential threat to US troops in Syria.
Plumes of black smoke billowed Friday from the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad as Turkey continued bombarding the area in an offensive that was progressing “successfully as planned,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said.
The Defense Ministry statement reported the death of two Turkish soldiers, with three wounded, but did not give details. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said 342 “terrorists” — Ankara’s term for Syrian Kurdish militiamen — have been killed so far. The figure could not be independently verified. Syrian activists say only eight fighters were killed.
The Pentagon said the incursion was damaging US-Turkey relations, adding that the US was not abandoning its Kurdish partners.
“We have not abandoned the Kurds, let me be clear about that,” US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at the Pentagon.
“Nobody green-lighted this operation by Turkey, just the opposite. We pushed back very hard at all levels for the Turks not to commence this operation,” Esper said.
The Kurdish YPG is the main fighting element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which have acted as the principal allies of the US in a campaign that recaptured territory held by Daesh.
The SDF now holds most of the territory that once made up Daesh’s “caliphate” in Syria, and has been keeping thousands of Daesh fighters in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.
Eight people were killed and 35 wounded when the YPG militia launched a mortar and rocket attack on Turkey’s Syrian border town of Nusaybin, the governor’s office in the southeastern province of Mardin said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to send millions of Syrian refugees to Europe if the EU calls Turkey’s military offensive “an invasion.”
The statement is considered by some a move to “weaponize” the refugees who have been in Turkey since the beginning of Syrian civil war, and to use them as a leverage.
“Turkey must understand that our main concern is that their actions may lead to another humanitarian catastrophe, which would be unacceptable. Nor will we ever accept that refugees are weaponized and used to blackmail us. That is why I consider threats made by Erdogan totally out of place,” Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said.
(With AP and Reuters)