By Nabih Bulos and David S. Cloud
Los Angeles Times
AMMAN, Jordan — In a move to excise a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia, Turkey launched an incursion into northern Syria on Wednesday that frustrated lawmakers in Washington who had hoped to prevent an abandonment of an important ally against Islamic State militants.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced via Twitter the start of the Turkish blitz even as news channels began to beam images of Turkish artillery and warplanes pounding the parts of northern Syria controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led group of militias that have for years received backing from the United States.
"The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched #OperationPeaceSpring," Erdogan wrote. "Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area."
A spokesman for the Syrian Kurdish forces, Mustafa Bali, confirmed that Turkish warplanes had begun airstrikes on areas near the Syrian border. At least seven civilians reportedly were killed in the strikes.
The operation comes after the Trump administration in effect said this week it would allow a Turkish incursion into Syria, as the U.S. withdrew its troops. The move brought harsh criticism even from the president's staunch Republican allies, who excoriated him for allowing one U.S. ally, Turkey, to attack another ally, the Kurds.
President Donald Trump, in a statement issued by the White House on Wednesday, said the U.S. "does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea."
Activist groups posted images and videos of civilians escaping Ras al-Ayn, one of two towns targeted in the Turkish offensive.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported that the government was deploying artillery and mortars along with warplanes to strike positions in Ras al-Ayn and elsewhere, while troops destroyed fortifications set up by the Kurds.
White House officials defended their decision to withdraw the 50 to 100 special operations troops from observation posts near the Syria-Turkey border, insisting that they had not given Turkey a green light to invade and calling on Ankara to safeguard civilians.
"Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place," the Trump statement said, adding that Ankara "is now responsible for ensuring all ISIS fighters being held captive remain in prison and that ISIS does not reconstitute in any way, shape, or form."
But there was no confirmation from Turkish officials that its operation included such sweeping goals.
Trump also seemed to downplay the risk from Islamic State prisoners, saying if they escaped they would go to European countries, which he claimed had refused requests to take back detainees who had joined the fight in Syria from Europe. He did not specify which countries.
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. official said that the pullback ordered by Trump has "effectively frozen" wider U.S. operations against Islamic State in northeastern Syria, and that top U.S. commanders are expecting to be ordered soon to withdraw the roughly 1,000 troops still in the Syrian region. Kurdish fighters in the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces had shifted their focus to opposing the Turkish invasion.
Trump said at the White House that the Pentagon had moved "a certain number of ISIS fighters that are particularly bad" to make sure they didn't escape with the Kurds now fighting Turkey. No details were immediately available.
Michael Morell, a former acting director of CIA, wrote in a tweet Wednesday that Turkey's plan was to create a zone inside Syria in areas now controlled by the Kurds. Ankara "will create a buffer along the border between it and the Kurds, pushing Kurds from their homes south. The Turks will install in this area Syrian Arab refugees now in Turkey. As this unfolds, the Turks will commit atrocities and Kurds will die."
The reaction to the Turkish incursion was overwhelmingly negative, with Democrats and Republicans warning that it would destabilize northeastern Syria, allow a resurgence of Islamic State and expose Kurds to punishing Turkish military occupation.
In one of the harshest statements, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said that Trump's decision to withdraw troops and halt assistance to the Kurds had "shamefully betrayed" the Kurds.
"We can only hope the president's decision does not lead to even greater loss of life and a resurgence of ISIS," he said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the Kurdish troops in Syria's northeast "fought and died on our behalf, only to now be abandoned by the president, against the best advice from the intelligence community, U.S. military and State Department."
"Abandoning the Syrian Kurds and greenlighting Turkey's campaign to decimate them risks American interests in the entire region and our reputation as a partner around the world," Feinstein said. "Congress must work to reverse this disastrous decision."
The Turkish operation was also condemned by other NATO members.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly said the United Nations Security Council would meet Thursday to review the situation in northeastern Syria.
The Kurdish-led administration that controls northeastern Syria called Wednesday for a three-day "general mobilization," exhorting all of its people to head to the borders with Turkey.
"We thought the Americans were staying, and that the political equations would progress and the area would peacefully move to the next stage in Syria," said Omar Rassoul, a 57-year-old writer from the city of Malikiyah, in a phone interview Wednesday. "Now there's no hope for the future. There's just a lot of fear. ... We don't know if overnight we'll become victims or migrants."
For years, Erdogan has clamored for the U.S. to abandon the Kurdish force. Turkey sees the force as a terrorist offshoot of Kurdish separatist movements it has fought at home and wants to excise them from the area, despite U.S. assurances and attempts at forging a security mechanism amenable to Ankara.
On Sunday, Ankara appeared to get its wish: Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, clearing the path for a Turkish incursion. The decision came as a shock to the United States' Kurdish partners.
"We were together on a patrol on Sunday. We got back and were supposed to meet at noon the next day," said Khalil Khalfo, a commander in the Tal Abyad Military Council, a militia under the Syrian Democratic Forces, in an interview Wednesday. "That morning at 6 we got a message telling us they're leaving. That was it."
Trump, facing intense pressure, including from his Republican allies, later walked back his comments and threatened "to obliterate" Turkey's economy if it went too far, even as he insisted Tuesday on Twitter that "in no way have we Abandoned the Kurds," who he said were "special people and wonderful fighters."
Fahrettin Altun, a communications director with the Turkish government, said Wednesday that Turkish troops alongside Syrian rebels would "cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly."
Several conservative Republicans and Trump's strongest allies in Congress publicly pleaded with the president to step in and defend the Kurds.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of Trump's strongest allies on Capitol Hill, drafted a bill with Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland to impose sanctions on Turkey unless the administration can prove that Turkey is not operating unilaterally. The proposal would sanction the U.S. assets of Turkish political leaders as well as any foreign persons who support the Turkish military, among other requirements.
Turkey has said it wants to push back the Kurds from a 20-mile corridor of territory stretching along the border with Syria. Once it establishes this so-called safe zone, it wants to ramp up humanitarian reconstruction and resettle there the millions of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. Such a zone, however, would cut off the Kurds from an essential border crossing they rely on for most of their goods, while drastically reducing their access to water resources in the country's northeastern corner.
Despite Turkey's assurances, aid groups expect any incursion to cause massive disruption. The International Rescue Committee said Wednesday that as many as 300,000 people could be displaced from their homes.
Bulos reported from Amman and Cloud from Washington. Special correspondent Kamiran Saadoun in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.