|Date: Oct 10, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Turkey: forces push deeper into northeast Syria|
ISTANBUL: Turkish commandos pushed deeper into Syrian territory east of the Euphrates river on the second day of an offensive against Kurdish militia, as a withdrawal by U.S. forces opened up a dangerous new phase in the region's eight-year-old conflict.
The Turkish Defense ministry also said Thursday morning it had seized designated targets in northeast Syria.
Ashamed of Washington's role in making way for the Turkish incursion, senior members of U.S. President Donald Trump's own Republican Party condemned him for abandoning Syrian Kurds, who have been loyal allies of Washington in the fight against Daesh (ISIS) in Syria.
NATO-ally Turkey has said it intends to create a "safe zone" in order to return millions of refugees to Syria. But world powers fear the Turkish action could exacerbate the conflict, and run the risk of Daesh prisoners escaping from camps amid the chaos.
"Our heroic commandos taking part in Operation Peace Spring are continuing to advance east of the Euphrates," the Turkish Defense Ministry wrote on Twitter Thursday, posting a video showing soldiers firing rifles in darkness as they advanced.
A witness in the Turkish town of Akcakale said volleys of rockets were fired from there across the border into Syria's Tel Abyad. Smoke rose from two targets hit on the Syrian side of the border, he said.
Turkish forces shelled targets near Ral al Ain Thursday morning, and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters responded, another witness said.
The Turkish military has hit 181 targets of the Kurdish militia with its air force and artillery since the start of operation into northeast Syria, the ministry said.
One of the prisons where Daesh detainees are held was struck by a Turkish air strike, the SDF said on Twitter.
The U.S. military has taken custody of two high-profile Daesh militants previously held in Syria by the SDF and moved them out of the country to a secure location, a U.S. official said.
A second U.S. official said they belonged to a group of British fighters nicknamed "The Beatles," who have been tied to the murder of Western hostages.
Akcakale was quiet for much of the morning after sporadic gunfire and the sound of tank movement were heard in the early hours, Reuters journalists said. Explosions had rocked Tel Abyad earlier in the night, they said.
"Operation Peace Spring is continuing as planned across the border," Turkey's Vice President Fuat Oktay wrote on Twitter. Turkey regards the Kurdish militia as a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish PKK militants waging a decades-old insurgency in southeast Turkey.
Troops entered Syria at four points, two of them close to Tel Abyad and two close to Ras al Ain further east, according to Turkish media reports.
Air strikes killed at least five civilians and three SDF fighters, while dozens of civilians were wounded, the SDF said. Thousands of people fled Ras al Ain towards Hasaka province, held by the SDF.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said on Twitter that the group's fighters had repelled a ground attack by Turkish troops in Tel Abyad.
The United Nations Security Council will meet on Thursday to discuss Syria at the request of the five European members, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland.
In a letter to the 15-member Council seen by Reuters, Turkey said that its military operation would be "proportionate, measured and responsible."
The 22-member Arab League said it will hold an emergency meeting Saturday.
At a news conference Wednesday, Trump defended U.S. policy towards Kurds, saying Washington had spent "tremendous amounts of money" arming and funding them.
"The Kurds are fighting for their land...As somebody wrote in a very powerful article today, they didn't help us in the Second World War, they didn't help us with Normandy as an example... But they were there to help us with their land, and that's a different thing," Trump said.
"With all of that being said we like the Kurds."
But one of Trump's closest fellow Republican allies, Senator Lindsey Graham, said failing to support the Kurds would be "the biggest mistake of his presidency" and unveiled a framework for sanctions on Turkey with Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen.
The Syrian Kurdish group was for years Washington's main allies on the ground in Syria and the incursion was potentially one of the biggest shifts in years in the Syrian war that has drawn in global and regional powers.
The Kurds played a leading role in capturing territory from Daesh, and now hold the largest swathe of Syria outside of the hands of President Bashar al-Assad. The SDF holds thousands of Daesh fighters and tens of thousands of their relatives in detention.
Kurdish forces halt anti-Daesh operations
WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters have halted operations for now against Daesh (ISIS) in Syria as Turkey launched a military offensive in Syria’s northeast, two U.S. officials and a Kurdish military source said Wednesday. “The SDF stopped the anti-ISIS operations because it’s impossible to carry out any operation while you are being threatened by a large army right on the northern border,” the Kurdish military source said.
One of the U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the suspension also impacted U.S. training of stabilization forces in Syria. It was unclear whether the pause affected every aspect of U.S.-partnered operations against Daesh or whether there might be exceptions.
But any suspension in such activities would represent a direct setback to the central U.S. goal of helping the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces secure territory seized from Daesh.
It would also show how the Kurdish-led SDF is rapidly shifting its focus to the fight against Turkey - at the cost of preparations to prevent Daesh’s resurgence.
Turkish warplanes and artillery struck Kurdish militia positions in several towns Wednesday after the United States this week pulled back its troops from the Turkey-Syria frontier following a decision by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump’s critics say his move cleared the way for the Turkish operation and amounted to a betrayal of America’s allies, the Kurds. U.S. officials say the president felt U.S. troops should not be caught in the middle of that fight, and Trump says he is fulfilling promises to withdraw the United States from “endless” Middle East wars.
The Kurdish fighters, considered terrorists by Turkey, have described the U.S. decision as “a stab in the back.” Spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, the SDF has been the backbone of the U.S.-led campaign against Daesh.
The U.S. military had hoped to train SDF and other groups to create a stabilization force of 50,000-60,000 fighters to help prevent a resurgence of Daesh.
As of last month, the U.S. military estimated it was perhaps about halfway toward that goal.
A third official told Reuters that the SDF was still guarding prisons holding some 11,000 captured Daesh fighters, but noted that a small number of SDF forces had relocated ahead of the Turkish offensive.
U.S. officials have long feared that the SDF would be unable to continue guarding the facilities in the event of a major Turkish incursion into Syria. Still, Daesh remnants could force the SDF to battle it as well.
Jennifer Cafarella, research director at the Institute for the Study of War think tank in Washington, said the SDF faced the likely prospect of having to fight on two fronts: against Turkish forces and remnants of Daesh simultaneously.
“ISIS leader [Abu Bakr al-]Baghdadi is undoubtedly prepared for this moment,” Cafarella said.
U.S. officials have been warning for months against losing focus on Daesh, which they believe could again become a potent insurgency.