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Turkey aimed to “neutralize” Syrian Kurdish militants in northeastern Syria and to “liberate the local population from the yoke of the armed thugs”

Turkish airstrikes hit the town of Ras al-Ayn on the Syrian side of the border, activists in Syria said.

Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said Turkish warplanes were targeting “civilian areas” in northern Syria, causing “a huge panic” in the region.

There were no independent reports, however, on what was being struck in the initial hours of the operation.

Earlier Wednesday, warning of a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Syrian Kurdish forces who are allied with the United States issued a general mobilization call ahead of Turkey’s attack.

The Turkish operation would ignite new fighting in Syria’s 8-year-old war, potentially displacing hundreds of thousands of people, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights reported that people had begun fleeing the border town of Tal Abyad. Kurdish politician Nawaf Khalil, who is in northern Syria, said some people were leaving the town for villages farther south.

In its call for a general mobilization, the local civilian Kurdish authority known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also asked the international community to live up to its responsibilities as “a humanitarian catastrophe might befall our people.”

“We call upon our people, of all ethnic groups, to move toward areas close to the border with Turkey to carry out acts of resistance during this sensitive historical time,” it said, adding that the mobilization would last for three days.

The Kurds also said that they want the US-led coalition to set up a no-fly zone in northeastern Syria to protect the civilian population from Turkish airstrikes.

The US-backed Syrian Kurdish group urged Moscow to broker and guarantee talks with the Syrian government in Damascus in light of Turkey’s planned military operation. The Syrian Kurdish-led administration said in a statement it is responding positively to calls from Moscow encouraging the Kurds and the Syrian government to settle their difference through talks.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry condemned Turkey’s plans for an invasion, calling it a “blatant violation” of international law and vowing to repel the incursion. Although it blamed some Kurdish groups for what is happening, saying they were being used as a tool to help an alleged “American project,” it said Syria is ready to welcome back its “stray sons if they return to their senses,” referring to the pro-US Kurdish fighters.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Washington of playing “very dangerous games” with the Syrian Kurds, saying that the US first propped up the Syrian Kurdish “quasi state” in northeastern Syria and is now withdrawing its support.

“Such reckless attitude to this highly sensitive subject can set fire to the entire region, and we have to avoid it at any cost,” he said during a visit to Kazakhstan. Russian news media said Moscow communicated that position to Washington.

Earlier Wednesday, IS militants targeted a post of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, which was once the de facto IS capital at the height of the militants’ power in the region.

The SDF, which is holding thousands of IS fighters in several detention facilities in northeastern Syria, has warned that a Turkish incursion might lead to the resurgence of the extremists. The US-allied Kurdish-led force captured the last IS area controlled by the militants in eastern Syria in March.