ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey pounded Kurdish militia in northeast Syria for a second day on Thursday, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee and killing dozens, in a cross-border assault on U.S. allies that has turned the Washington establishment against President Donald Trump.
The offensive against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by Kurdish YPG militia, which began days after Trump pulled U.S. troops out of the way and following a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, opens one of the biggest new fronts in years in an eight-year-old civil war that has drawn in global powers.
“We have one of three choices: Send in thousands of troops and win Militarily, hit Turkey very hard Financially and with Sanctions, or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds!” Trump said in a Twitter post on Thursday.
At least 23 fighters with the SDF and six fighters with a Turkish-backed Syrian rebel group had been killed, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war.
The SDF said Turkish air strikes and shelling had also killed nine civilians. In an apparent retaliation by Kurdish-led forces, six people including a 9-month-old baby were killed by mortar and rocket fire into Turkish border towns, officials in southeastern Turkey said.
The International Rescue Committee said 64,000 people in Syria have fled since the campaign began. The towns of Ras al-Ain and Darbasiya, some 60 km (37 miles) to the east, have become largely deserted.
The Observatory said Turkish forces had seized two villages near Ras al-Ain and five near the town of Tel Abyad, while a spokesman for Syrian rebel forces said the towns were surrounded after fighters seized the villages around them.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry said 219 militants had been killed so far. Kurds said they were resisting the assault.
Late on Thursday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar spoke by phone with his French, British and U.S. counterparts, the defense ministry said. It said Akar and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper discussed defense and security issues, and added that Akar briefed Esper on the aims and progress of the incursion.
According to a senior Turkish security official, the armed forces struck weapons and ammunition depots, gun and sniper positions, tunnels and military bases.
Jets flew operations up to 30 km (18 miles) into Syria – a limit which Turkey’s foreign minister said Turkish forces would not go beyond. A Reuters journalist saw shells exploding just outside Tel Abyad.
Ankara brands the YPG militia as terrorists because of their ties to militants who have waged an insurgency in Turkey. On Thursday, Turkish police began criminal investigations of several Kurdish lawmakers and detained scores of people in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, accusing them of criticizing the military’s incursion into Syria, state media reported.
U.S. LAWMAKERS CRITICIZE TRUMP
Trump has faced rare criticism from senior figures in his own Republican Party who accuse him of deserting loyal U.S. allies. Trump has called the Turkish assault a “bad idea” and said he did not endorse it.
After the U.N. Security Council met to discuss the fighting, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said Turkey faced unspecified “consequences” if it did not meet its pledge to protect vulnerable populations or contain Islamic State fighters.
The SDF have been the main allies of U.S. forces on the ground in the battle against Islamic State since 2014. They have been holding thousands of captured IS fighters and tens of thousands of their relatives in detention.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for an emergency meeting of the coalition of more than 30 countries created to fight Islamic State. The coalition “needs to say today what are we going do, how do you, Turkey, want to proceed and how do we ensure the security of places where fighters are held? Everything needs to be on the table so that we are clear,” Le Drian said on France 2 television.
NATO member Turkey has said it intends to create a “safe zone” for the return of millions of refugees to Syria.
But world powers fear the operation could intensify Syria’s conflict and runs the risk of Islamic State prisoners escaping from camps amid the chaos.
Erdogan sought to assuage those concerns, saying militants from the jihadist group would not be allowed to rebuild a presence in the region.
He took aim at the European Union and Arab powers Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have voiced opposition to the operation.
“They are not honest, they just make up words,” Erdogan said in a speech to members of his AK party. “We, however, take action and that is the difference between us.”
REFUGEES TO EUROPE?
Erdogan threatened to permit Syrian refugees in Turkey to move to Europe if EU countries described his forces’ move as an occupation. Turkey hosts around 3.6 million people who have fled the Syrian war.
The European Union should have a dialogue with Turkey despite Ankara’s offensive against the Kurds, in order to avoid a fresh wave of migrants coming to Europe, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said on Thursday.
Russia, the main international backer of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, said it planned to push for dialogue between the Syrian and Turkish governments following the incursion.
The Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria said a prison that holds “the most dangerous criminals from more than 60 nationalities” had been struck by Turkish shelling, and Turkey’s attacks on its prisons risked “a catastrophe”.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey will be responsible only for Islamic State prisoners within the safe zone it aims to form. Turkey would ask countries from which the prisoners came to take them back.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who usually backs Trump, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria. He unveiled a framework for sanctions on Turkey with Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen.
“If there is any measure taken against us, we will retaliate and respond in kind,” Cavusoglu said, adding that “nothing will come of these sanctions.”
Reporting by Daren Butler and Orhan Coskun; Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut and Reuters correspondents in the region; Writing by William Maclean and Grant McCool; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Daniel Wallis