BEIRUT — Turkey launched a ground and air assault on Wednesday against a Syrian militia that has been a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State, days after President Donald Trump agreed to let the operation proceed.
As Turkish warplanes bombed Syrian towns and troops crossed the border, the chaos in Washington continued, with Trump issuing seemingly contradictory policy statements in the face of strident opposition from his Republican allies in Congress.
Trump acquiesced to the Turkish operation in a call with Turkey’s president Sunday, agreeing to move U.S. troops out of Turkey’s way despite opposition from his own State Department and military.
On Wednesday, hours after the operation began, he condemned it, calling it “a bad idea.”
By that time, Turkish fighter jets were streaking through the sky over Syrian towns, while artillery shells boomed overhead. Traffic was jammed with terrified civilians fleeing south in trucks piled high with possessions and children.
After about six hours of airstrikes, Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies crossed the border, opening a ground offensive.
At least seven people were killed in the Turkish attacks Wednesday, according to the Rojava Information Center, an activist group in northeastern Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a conflict monitor based in Britain, put the toll at eight.
Turkey’s long-planned move to root out U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria could open a dangerous new front in Syria’s 8-year-old war, pitting two U.S. allies against each other and raising the specter of sectarian bloodletting. Even before it began, it had set off fierce debates in Washington, with members of Congress accusing Trump of betraying the militia that fought beside the United States to defeat the Islamic State.
There were also concerns that the militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces, would shift its forces to the north to fight Turkey, creating a power vacuum elsewhere that could benefit President Bashar Assad of Syria, his Russian and Iranian allies, or the Islamic State.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., usually a staunch Trump ally, accused him of having “shamelessly abandoned” America’s Kurdish allies, a move that “ensures the reemergence of ISIS,” an alternate name for the Islamic State group.
Trump has insisted that “in no way have we abandoned the Kurds,” and Wednesday said he firmly opposed the operation.
“The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea,” he said in a statement.
“Turkey,” he added, “has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place — and we will hold them to this commitment.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed back against the idea that Trump had given Turkey a green light.
U.S. forces pulled back from the border after “it became very clear that there were American soldiers that were going to be at risk,” he said in an interview on “PBS News Hour.”
“The president,” Pompeo added, “made a decision to put them in a place where they were out of harm’s way.”
The United States withdrew 50 to 100 troops from the border area in advance of the operation, and U.S. military officials said that the U.S. was not providing assistance to either side. However, the United States was providing intelligence to Turkey until Monday that may have helped it target Kurdish forces.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the operation was intended to “prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border.” Turkey considers the militia a terrorist organization linked to a Kurdish guerrilla movement.
Erdogan did not say how far into Syria that Turkish forces would go, but he has previously called for a Turkish-controlled buffer zone 20 miles deep into Syria and extending for hundreds of miles along the border.
“Turkey has no ambition in northeastern Syria except to neutralize a long-standing threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate the local population from the yoke of armed thugs,” a government spokesman, Fahrettin Altun, wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post.
The attacks Wednesday were broad, with strikes hitting in or near at least five towns along a stretch of more than 150 miles of the Syrian-Turkish border.
The most intensive strikes were near Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain, two towns that U.S. forces withdrew from Monday. But they also targeted the larger towns of Kobani and Qamishli, where one strike left a building in flames and a dead body on the sidewalk, according to a video shot by a local journalist.
“There is a state of fear and terror among the people here, and the women and children are leaving the town,” said Akrem Saleh, a local journalist reached by phone in Ras al Ain. Many men were staying home because they feared that Syrian rebels who accompanied the Turks would loot their homes if they were found empty.
Just yards across the border from Tel Abyad, the sound of bombardment shook the town of Akcakale, Turkey. Schools were closed, and children played in the streets, waving flags and cheering a convoy of armored personnel carriers heading to the border.
Loudspeakers blared Ottoman martial music interspersed with stern announcements urging people not to gather in large groups and to stay away from houses facing the border.
“All day they were announcing,” said Fehima Kirboga, 46, as she sat with a relative on the sidewalk in the cool of the evening. “We are very anxious, but where can we go?”
The Syrian Democratic Forces warned of a “possible humanitarian catastrophe” because of the Turkish incursion.
The Kurdish-led administration that governs the area issued a call for “general mobilization” to fight the Turks.
“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.
Michael Maldonado, 31, a former Marine lance corporal from California who was among a handful of American volunteers fighting with the Kurds, said it did not matter to him that Turkey was a NATO ally.
“Ally or not, we are going to fight,” he said in a phone interview from his position less than 20 miles from the Turkish border in eastern Syria. “We see a strong country coming to massacre people who are just trying to live their lives, and we are going to try stop this. We feel we have no choice.”
The U.S. military, which had been working with the SDF to fight remnants of the Islamic State in Syria, has cut off all support to the militia, two U.S. military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential military assessments.
The officials said the United States was not providing support to Turkey either, but for the past few weeks, as Turkish military officials planned the assault, they received U.S. surveillance video and information from reconnaissance aircraft. The information may have helped them track Kurdish positions.
Because of a U.S. counterterrorism partnership with Turkey, Turkish aircraft were given access to a suite of U.S. battlefield intelligence in northeast Syria. Turkey was removed from the intelligence-sharing program only Monday, a Defense Department official said.
One official said that U.S. warplanes and surveillance aircraft remained in the area to defend the remaining U.S. ground forces in northeast Syria but said they would not contest Turkish warplanes attacking Kurdish positions.
The commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Mazlum Kobani, told The New York Times on Tuesday that a fight with Turkey could pull his forces out of areas where the Islamic State remains a threat, opening a void that could be exploited by others in Syria’s multiring civil war.
U.S. officials said Tuesday that the militia was already beginning to leave some of their counterterrorism missions against the Islamic State.
In addition to that concern, there are worries about the prisons and camps the militia oversees in northeastern Syria that hold tens of thousands of captured Islamic State fighters and their families.
Trump said Wednesday that Turkey should take control of the detainees.
“Turkey is now responsible for ensuring all ISIS fighters being held captive remain in prison and that ISIS does not reconstitute in any way, shape or form,” he said in his statement.
But leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces say there have been no discussions with the United States about handing over the facilities, and the Turkish forces are more than 70 miles away.
U.S. officials said Wednesday that the military was moving to take up to several dozen detainees out of the Kurdish-run prisons. It was not clear what would be done with them but for now some were being taken to a U.S. base in Iraq.
As Turkey made efforts to win diplomatic support for its operation — informing the United States, Russia, Britain, NATO and the secretary-general of the United Nations — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged Turkey “to act with restraint” and to ensure that “the gains we have made in the fight against ISIS are not jeopardized.”
Amélie de Montchalin, the French junior minister for European affairs, said that France, Germany and Britain were drafting a joint statement condemning the Turkish offensive.
A number of countries, including Russia and Iran, both allies of Assad, called for talks.
The U.N. Security Council was to discuss the issue Thursday. Stoltenberg said he planned to meet with Erdogan on Friday.
A military coalition led by the United States teamed up with a Kurdish militia beginning in 2015 to fight Islamic State extremists who had seized a territory that was the size of Britain and spanned the Syrian-Iraqi border. That militia grew into the Syrian Democratic Forces, which led the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and eventually took control of the areas it liberated.
Since then it has held the territory with the aid of about 1,000 U.S. troops. Trump has repeatedly sought to withdraw them from Syria as part of his long-standing promise to extricate the United States from what he deems “endless wars.”
But he has faced fierce pushback from others in Washington, including from Republican lawmakers, who vocally opposed the Turkish operation Wednesday.
The night before the operation, Graham warned Turkey not to proceed.
“To the Turkish Government: You do NOT have a green light to enter into northern Syria,” he wrote. “There is massive bipartisan opposition in Congress, which you should see as a red line you should not cross.”