Turkey said Thursday that it had carried out military strikes on dozens of targets in Syria during two days of an offensive against Kurdish fighters, a move that sent tens of thousands of people fleeing in fear.
Dozens of Kurdish civilians were killed or wounded by a heavy barrage of artillery and airstrikes since the incursion began Wednesday, said Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, a group of militias that for years has received U.S. backing in the fight against Islamic State militants.
Turkey has pounded an area of Syria controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The Kurds retaliated with fighting in several Turkish border towns, injuring 16 people, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who a day earlier announced the start of the incursion, said in a televised speech Thursday that 109 “terrorists have been neutralized.”
The United States, meanwhile, faced accusations of betraying an ally because the operation came after President Trump unexpectedly said early this week that U.S. troops would be withdrawn, in effect allowing Turkey, an ally, to attack the Kurds in Syria, also allies. Trump later said in a statement that the U.S. did not endorse the attack, calling it a “bad idea.”
International Rescue Committee, an aid group, warned Thursday that 64,000 people had been displaced and that an additional 236,000 could join them if the offensive continues.
Signs of that displacement could be seen on the road leading to the Semalka border crossing with Iraq, with families crowding in cars and atop trucks laden with furniture.
The Turkish Defense Ministry said Thursday that it had so far carried out strikes on 181 targets in Syria. It also launched a ground offensive, deploying Turkish commandos and Syrian rebel factions.
By the evening, those factions, part of a loose grouping of opposition fighters who have styled themselves as the Syrian National Army, announced they had seized control of a number of villages around Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, both key border towns that Turkey aims to commandeer in the first phase of its operations.
“We’re aiming to reach the Syrian-Iraqi border,” said Maj. Yusef Hammoud, spokesman for the Syrian National Army, in a phone interview Thursday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said 16 of the Kurdish fighters had been killed.
Turkey insists it is carrying out a campaign to push out the Kurdish fighters from a 20-mile band of territory — what Ankara has called a safe zone — extending along the Syrian-Turkish border, and resettle the millions of refugees it has hosted since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
But the offensive marks yet another splintering of sides in the eight-year conflict, as it raises fears of a sectarian massacre and a new refugee crisis in the region.
In its search for a reliable partner to counter Islamic State in Syria, the U.S. had chosen the Kurdish fighters, making them the nexus of the Syrian Democratic Forces and pouring training, weapons and air support for their campaign to roll back the extremists. The Kurds also used that support to solidify their grip over northeastern Syria and create the foundations of a quasi-state.
But the choice of the Kurds proved unacceptable to Ankara, which viewed them as nothing more than a proxy for its longtime nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers Party.
The offensive began three days after Trump said he would withdraw a small contingent of U.S. troops from their outposts in Syria, in effect acquiescing to Erdogan’s often-repeated demand that Turkey take charge of northeastern Syria.
On Thursday, Trump wrote on Twitter that “Turkey had been planning to attack the Kurds for a long time. They have been fighting forever.”
He said he was trying to end the fighting, and threatened Turkey with sanctions if it did not “play by the rules.”
Erdogan responded to his critics in Europe, saying that if they continued to call the incursion an “invasion” he would “open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way.” Turkey and its coastal cities were one of the main launching points for Syrian refugees coming to Europe.
Special correspondent Kamiran Saadoun in Qamishli, Syria, contributed to this report.