By Joanne Stocker and Fergus Kelly
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of a long-anticipated military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria on Wednesday, October 9 after U.S. troops pulled back from the border area this week.
“The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched #OperationPeaceSpring against PKK/YPG and Daesh terrorists in northern Syria. Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” Erdogan said.
He added: “With Operation Peace Spring, we will eliminate the terrorist threat to our country. We will create a safe zone to ensure that Syrian refugees return to their home countries. We will protect the territorial integrity of Syria and free all the people of the region from the clutches of terrorism.”
Tens of thousands of Syrian fighters have been mobilized to take part in the offensive, a spokesperson said earlier.
Turkey’s long-planned assault on the U.S.-backed SDF, which it brands terrorists, was after President Donald Trump announced he was pulling back U.S. troops, despite growing international concern over regional stability.
The Syrian fighters, most of them from northwestern areas controlled by Turkey since previous offensives in 2016 and 2018, were gathered in a former refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Akcakale.
They belong to factions of the Free Syrian Army armed and financed by Ankara. Last week a group of Turkey-backed rebels – National Liberation Front, based in Idlib province, and the National Army, which operates in Efrin – announced they would unify under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army, and vowed to fight the SDF.
At least 18,000 fighters are due to participate in the first stage of the Turkish offensive, according to Abdelrahman Ghazi Dadeh, spokesperson for Anwar al-Haq.
Speaking to journalists Akcakale, Dadeh said 8,000 fighters would target the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad and 10,000 Ras al-Ayn, also known as Serekaniye.
According to Dadeh, officers from Syrian factions accompanied by Turkish soldiers carried out reconnaissance along the border on Wednesday in preparation for the assault.
October 9 is the 21st anniversary of the expulsion from Syria of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.
Turkey considers the predominantly-Kurdish Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG), the backbone of the SDF, to be a terrorist organization inextricably linked to the PKK.
Backed by the U.S.-led international Coalition, the multi-ethnic SDF coalition fought the ground war against Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria, but the White House this week announced it was withdrawing special forces from the area that had been effectively preventing a Turkish offensive.
Trump appeared to give a green light to the Turkish operation on Sunday when he ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the border area.
However, he later appeared to alter his position, saying he would “obliterate” the Turkish economy if its forces did anything he considered unreasonable.
Trump has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum for “abandoning the Kurds.” Around 11,000 SDF fighters, including around 8,000 Kurds, were killed in battles against ISIS.
SDF spokesperson Kino Gabriel told The Defense Post on Monday that the force would not be able to ensure the security of tens of thousands of suspected ISIS adherents and their families in camps and prisons across northern Syria.
Authorities in northeastern Syria called a general mobilization of civilians on Wednesday in anticipation of the Turkish operation.
With reporting from AFP