AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) — Turkish ground forces seized at least one village from Kurdish fighters in northern Syria as they pressed ahead with their assault for a second day Thursday, pounding towns and villages along with border with airstrikes and artillery.
Residents of border areas within Syria scrambled in panic as they tried to get out on foot and in cars, pick-up trucks and motorcycle rickshaws piled with mattresses and belongings. More than a dozen columns of heavy black smoke, apparently from fires caused by shelling, rose above one border town.
It was wrenchingly familiar for the many who only a few years ago, had fled the advances on their towns and villages by the Islamic State group.
The Turkish invasion was launched three days after U.S. President Donald Trump opened the way by pulling American troops from their positions near the border alongside their Kurdish allies. At a time when Trump faces an impeachment inquiry, the move drew swift criticism from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, along with many national defense experts, who say the move has placed U.S. credibility as well as the Kurds and regional stability at great risk. The Syrian Kurdish militia was the U.S.’s only ally on the ground in the years-long campaign that brought down the Islamic State group in Syria.
After ordering the pull-back, Trump warned Turkey to be moderate in its assault into northern Syria. But the opening barrage showed little sign of holding back: The Turkish Defense Military said its jets and artillery had struck 181 targets so far.
A Kurdish-led group and Syrian activists claimed Thursday that despite the bombardment, Turkish troops had not made much progress on several fronts they had opened over the past hours. But their claims could not be independently verified, and the situation on the ground was difficult to assess.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that so far 109 “terrorists” were killed in the offensive, a reference to the U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters who for the past years were the main force fighting the Islamic State group in Syria.
He did not elaborate, and the reports on the ground did not indicate anything remotely close to such a large number of casualties.
Erdogan also warned the European Union not to call Ankara’s incursion into Syria an “invasion,” and threatened, as he has in the past, to “open the gates” and let Syrian refugees flood Europe.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish forces on Thursday halted all operations against IS in order to focus on fighting Turkish troops, Kurdish and U.S. officials said.
The Syrian Kurdish fighters along with U.S. troops have been involved in mopping-up operations against IS fighters still holed up in the desert after their territorial hold was toppled earlier this year.
Turkey considers the Kurdish militia “terrorists” because of their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has led an insurgency against Turkey for 35 years, killing tens of thousands. The U.S. and other Western countries consider the PKK a terror group as well.
Turkey considers its operations against the Kurdish militia in Syria a matter of its own survival, and it also insists it won’t tolerate the virtual self-rule that the Kurds succeeded in carving out in northern Syria along the border.
The Turkish assault aims to carve out a zone of control the length of the border — a so-called “safe zone” — clearing out the Kurdish militia. Such a zone would end the Kurds’ autonomy in the area and put much of their population under Turkish control. Ankara has said it aims to settle some 2 million Syrian refugees, who are mainly Arabs, in the zone.
Turkey began its offensive in northern Syria on Wednesday with airstrikes and artillery shelling, and then ground troops began crossing the border later in the day.
The Observatory, a war monitor that has activists throughout the country, said that since Turkey began its operation, seven civilians have been killed.
Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said their fighters have repelled Turkish forces ground attacks.
“No advance as of now,” he tweeted Thursday.
But Maj. Youssef Hammoud, a spokesman for Turkish-backed opposition fighters participating in the operation, said the fighters captured the village of Yabisa, near the one of the main initial targets of the assault, the town of Tal Abyad, a spokesman for the fighters. In a tweet, he called it “the first village to win freedom.”
Turkey’s state-run news agency said the allied Syrian fighters had also cleared and entered a second village, Tel Fander. It did not provide details. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish commandos entered the village of Beir Asheq.
Trump’s decision to have American troops step aside in northeastern Syria was a major shift in U.S. policy and drew opposition from all sides at home. It also marked a stark change in rhetoric by Trump, who during a press conference in New York last year vowed to stand by the Kurds, who have been America’s only allies in Syria fighting IS.
Trump said at the time that the Kurds “fought with us” and “died with us,” and insisted that America would never forget.
After Erdogan announced the offensive, Trump called the operation “a bad idea.” Later Wednesday, he said he didn’t want to be involved in “endless, senseless wars.”
Turkey’s campaign — in which a NATO member rained down bombs on an area where hundreds of U.S. troops had been stationed — drew immediate criticism and calls for restraint from Europe.
Australia on Thursday expressed concerns the Turkish incursion could galvanize a resurgence of the Islamic State group and refused to endorse the close ally U.S. for pulling back its troops from the area. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had been in contact with the Turkish and U.S. governments overnight and admitted to being worried about the situation.
In Washington, officials said Wednesday that two British militants believed to be part of an Islamic State cell that beheaded hostages had been moved out of a detention center in Syria and were in U.S. custody.
The two, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, along with other British jihadis allegedly made up the IS cell nicknamed “The Beatles” by surviving captives because of their English accents. In 2014 and 2015, the militants held more than 20 Western hostages in Syria and tortured many of them.
The group beheaded seven American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers and a group of Syrian soldiers, boasting of the butchery in videos released to the world.