The United States military stood down as ground forces backed by Turkey mobilized to invade northeast Syria late Wednesday night, kicking off an offensive against Kurdish-led fighters as civilians fled the area.
A limited ground assault began around 10 p.m. local time (1900 GMT) on October 9 near the town of Tal Abyad after Turkish aircraft and artillery pounded Syrian towns along the border throughout the day, killing civilians and fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces ahead of the planned invasion.
Local sources said the initial ground attack came near the border village of Sousek.
SDF media head Mustafa Bali said that the first incursion attempt was repulsed by the SDF. More recent reports have suggested Turkey-backed forces are attempting to spread out to Tal Abyad’s flanks, but the reports could not be independently verified by The Defense Post.
Turkish artillery or airstrikes were reported throughout the day and overnight near Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ayn), Tal Abyad, Derik, Kobane, Ein Issa and Qamishli, and by early Thursday the Kurdish Red Crescent said at leave seven people were confirmed killed.
The SDF’s Coordination and Military Operations Center said on Twitter that Turkish artillery had also landed near the Bouzra dam in Derik (al-Malikiya) and the village of Katouf, 15 km southeast of Ras al-Ayn.
Initial, unconfirmed reports also said at least three SDF fighters were also killed as clashes broke out between the Kurdish-led fighters and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels along the border.
“The whole border is on fire, from Derik to Tal Abyad,” a local source in Qamishli told The Defense Post.
Locals who spoke to The Defense Post estimated that hundreds of people fled the border area on Tuesday after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the operation to clear Western-backed Kurdish-led fighters from areas of northeast Syria.
In the confusion, one young man said he was forced to leave friends behind in Qamishli to “go back to Derbesiye to save my family.” Another man, a resident of Manbij whose wife is pregnant with their second child, called Turkey’s looming invasion “a terrifying nightmare” and said he would flee if Syrian government forces returned to the contested city.
“The internet is very bad in the north. Electricity is down in most sectors along the border now. The roads are clogged with refugees,” Thomas McClure, a researcher at the Rojava Information Center, told reporters on Wednesday night.
RIC also reported that an early Turkish airstrike hit an SDF Counter-Terrorism Forces (YAT) camp.
Sporadic shelling continued into the night in Kobane and Qamishli. Two Syriac Christian civilians in Qamishli were killed, allegedly when projectile struck the building they were in, the SDF-affiliated Syriac Military Council said.
A source in Qamishli confirmed one of the deaths, saying the site was a family home, and that other family members were taken to a local hospital.
Local civil defense forces mobilized in cities such as Tal Abyad and Derik, with the Syriac Military Council taking up positions to defend Christian neighborhoods, RIC reported.
The White House announced late Sunday that American forces would not prevent a Turkish incursion into Syria, after President Donald Trump spoke with Erdogan, by phone.
Days before the operation, Syrian rebel groups supported by Turkey declared their unification under the banner of the Syrian National Army.
A spokesperson for a Syrian National Army rebel faction said Turkish airstrikes had destroyed SDF positions and ammunition depots at an airfield near Ayn Issa.
Videos circulated on social media earlier on Monday purportedly showing rebels mobilizing near Manbij while discussing “martyrdom” and fighting the Kurdish forces, leading to panic in northeast Syria, local sources told The Defense Post.
With the help of the U.S.-led Coalition, the SDFs and affiliated local military councils captured most of Syria’s northeast from ISIS between 2015 and March of this year.
The SDF has said it will be forced to halt all counter-ISIS operations and will not be able to sustain control of a number of prisons which house tens of thousands of captured ISIS families and fighters.
El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, two British ISIS members known as “the Beatles,” were taken into U.S. military custody and moved to an undisclosed “secure location” to prevent their escape. Reports of ISIS adherents escaping SDF-run detention centers and al-Hol camp appeared to be unfounded.
The French, German and British governments have called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, set for Thursday morning in New York.
France’s Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly called on Turkey to stop the offensive. “The Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria is dangerous. Dangerous for the safety of the Kurds. Dangerous because it is conducive to Daesh, against whom we have been fighting for 5 years. It must stop,” she said on Twitter.
“Renewed armed hostilities in the north-east will further undermine the stability of the whole region, exacerbate civilian suffering and provoke further displacements,” E.U. foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement, rejecting Turkey’s stated plan to resettle between two and three million war refugees in the border zone.
“It is unlikely that a so-called ‘safe zone’ in north-east Syria, as envisaged by Turkey, would satisfy international criteria for refugee return as laid down by UNHCR,” Mogherini said.
“Any attempt at demographic change would be unacceptable. The E.U. will not provide stabilization or development assistance in areas where the rights of local populations are ignored.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was notified by the Turkish government about the operation. “It’s important to avoid actions that may further destabilise the region, escalate tensions, and cause more human suffering,” Stoltenberg said.
The Czech and Finnish governments also condemned Turkey’s operation. Finland’s government said it would halt all weapons exports to Turkey in response.
U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham and Chris Van Hollen drafted bipartisan a bill on Wednesday to sanction Turkey’s president, vice president, top ministers and military, and to end U.S. military assistance, if Turkey refuses to call off the operation.