BEIRUT/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish forces and their Syrian allies seized large parts of the northern Syrian town of Suluk, a war monitor said on Sunday, as they pressed on with their offensive against Kurdish militia for a fifth day in the face of fierce international opposition.
Smoke rises near the border town of Tel Abyad, Syria, October 12, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Turkey is facing threats of possible sanctions from the United States unless it calls off the incursion. Two of its NATO allies, Germany and France, have said they are halting weapons exports to Turkey and the Arab League has denounced the operation.
Ankara launched the cross-border assault against the YPG militia after U.S President Donald Trump withdrew some U.S. troops from the border region. Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish militants in Turkey.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said Turkish forces and Syrian rebels entered Suluk, some 10 km (6 miles) from Turkey’s border. Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency said the rebels seized complete control of Suluk.
Suluk is southeast of the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad, one of the two main targets in the incursion, which was shelled by Turkish howitzers on Sunday morning, a witness in the neighboring Turkish town of Akcakale said.
Gunfire also resounded around the Syrian border town of Ras al Ain, some 120 km (75 miles) to the east of Tel Abyad, while Turkish artillery continued to target the area, a Reuters reporter across the border in Turkey’s Ceylanpinar said.
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, known as the National Army, advanced into Ras al Ain on Saturday but by Sunday there were still conflicting reports on who held control.
The Syrian Observatory monitoring group said the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in which the YPG comprises the main fighting element, had recovered “almost full control” of Ras al Ain after a counter attack.
A spokesman for the National Army denied this, saying its forces were still in the positions they took on Saturday.
Turkey’s incursion has raised international alarm over its mass displacement of civilians and the possibility of Islamic State militants escaping from Kurdish prisons. The Kurdish-led forces have been key allies for the United States in eliminating the jihadist group from northern Syria.
More than 130,000 people have been displaced from rural areas around Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain as a result of the fighting, the United Nations said on Sunday.
In a statement, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said OCHA and other relief agencies estimated up to 400,000 civilians in the Syrian conflict zone may require aid and protection in the coming period.
In the latest criticism, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed “grave concern” to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, saying the offensive may worsen the humanitarian situation and undermine progress against Islamic State.
“He urged the President to end the operation and enter into dialogue,” a spokesman for Johnson said after a telephone call between the two leaders on Saturday evening.
Turkey’s Defence Ministry said on Sunday that 480 YPG militants had been “neutralized” since the operation began, a term that commonly means killed.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organization that reports on the war, said 74 Kurdish-led fighters, 49 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels and 30 civilians have been killed in the fighting.
In Turkey, 18 civilians have been killed in cross-border bombardment, Turkish media and officials say.
For a graphic on ‘Where Kurds live’, click here
ISLAMIC STATE ESCAPEES
The SDF holds most of the northern Syrian territory that once made up Islamic State’s “caliphate” in the country. It has been keeping thousands of fighters from the jihadist group in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.
The Kurdish-led administration for northern and eastern Syria said the offensive was nearing a camp for displaced people holding thousands of members of “Islamic State (IS) families”.
Around 100 people – women affiliated with IS and their children – have escaped from the camp, the Observatory said.
The shelling of the camp at Ain Issa, north of Raqqa and about 30 km (20 miles) south of the border represented “support for the revival of the Daesh organization”, the Kurdish-led administration said, referring to IS militants.
Addressing the U.N. Security Council, the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State and other international parties, the Kurdish-led administration urged them “to bear your responsibilities and to intervene quickly to prevent a catastrophe whose effects will not be limited to Syria alone but will knock on all your doors when matters get out of control”.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a car bomb on Friday in Qamishli, the largest city in the Kurdish-held area, where some IS militants fled from a jail.
On Saturday Trump defended his decision to withdraw troops from the Syrian border region, telling conservative Christian activists that the United States should prioritize protecting its own borders.
“Let them have their borders, but I don’t think our soldiers should be there for the next 50 years guarding a border between Turkey and Syria when we can’t guard our own borders at home,” Trump said in a speech in Washington.
Turkey’s stated objective is to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria to resettle many of the 3.6 million Syrian war refugees it has been hosting. Erdogan has threatened to send them to Europe if the EU does not back his assault.
He has also dismissed the growing condemnation of the operation, saying that Turkey “will not stop it, no matter what anyone says”.
The SDF accused Turkey-backed rebel fighters of killing a Kurdish politician in a road ambush on Saturday. The rebel force denied it, saying it had not advanced that far.
The Syrian Observatory said Turkey-backed groups had killed nine civilians on the road, including Hervin Khalaf, co-chair of the secular Future Syria Party.
For a graphic on ‘Turkey hits Kurdish militia targets’ click here
Reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul, Tom Perry in Beirut and Reuters correspondents in the region, Kirsti Knolle in Vienna; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle and Frances Kerry