Turkey launches incursion into northern Syria

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Turkish soldiers stand guard on the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria | Burak Kara/Getty Images

The operation is aimed at driving Syrian Kurdish forces away from the Turkish border.

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Turkey launched an incursion into northern Syria on Wednesday afternoon, two days after U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to give the green light for an invasion.

The military operation, Ankara’s third such incursion since 2016, aims to push Syrian Kurdish forces away from the Turkish border and establish what Turkey calls a “safe zone” for refugee resettlement.

Announcing the start of the operation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tweeted: “Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area.”

He provided no further information.

Turkey has previously said it wants to create a buffer zone along its border reaching at least 30 kilometers deep into Syria.

Much of the Syrian territory along the border is currently held by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia that became a crucial partner of the West in defeating the Islamic State.

Turkey sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters’ presence near its border as a security threat. It considers the YPG and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a militant group seeking greater autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish region that is recognized as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union.

Ankara also plans to establish a “safe zone” in the areas it takes from the YPG in order to resettle Syrian refugees there. Turkey currently hosts 3.5 million refugees, according to official figures.

The Turkish incursion and safe zone plans have triggered concerns over potential large-scale displacement of Syrian Kurds, who are warning of “ethnic cleansing.”

Ankara’s move comes two days after Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw its troops from the area, a policy shift that many interpreted as tacit approval of the planned incursion.

Trump also said that Turkey would take custody of the thousands of Islamic State fighters currently held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — a U.S.-backed militia alliance dominated by the YPG — but did not offer details on how such a handover would work.

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali accused Turkey of targeting civilians with airstrikes shortly after the launch of the incursion. “There is a huge panic among people of the region,” he wrote on Twitter.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on Turkey to show restraint, adding: “If the plan involves the creation of a so-called safe zone, don’t expect the EU to pay for any of it.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called on Turkey to break off the operation, warning that it risks “a reinvigoration” of the Islamic State and “a humanitarian disaster as well as new refugee flows.” France’s European Affairs Minister Amélie de Montchalin, meanwhile, said France and the U.K. would call a U.N. Security Council over Turkey’s incursion.

Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of NATO — of which Turkey is a member — said: “I count on Turkey to … ensure that the gains we have made in the fight against ISIS are not jeopardised,” adding that he would discuss the matter with Erdoğan on Friday.

This article has been updated. 

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