Turkey launched a major military operation in northeastern Syria on Wednesday, prompting alarm and despair among the Kurdish fighters who have been crucial U.S. allies in the war on the Islamic State group.
The announcement came three days after President Donald Trump agreed to move American troops out of the region to clear the way for Ankara.
“The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched Operation Peace Spring,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tweeted. “Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area.”
Meanwhile, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which controls much of the area along the border, said airstrikes had begun.
“There is a huge panic among people in the region,” spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted.
NBC News could not independently confirm airstrikes in the area, although Turkish television showed video of warplanes taking off from military bases. Howitzers started hitting YPG militia bases and ammunition depots, Reuters reported, citing a Turkish security source.
The U.S. military began pulling back its forces from the border after the White House’s announcement Sunday.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, are led by the Kurdish YPG militia, which has long angered the Turkish government and Erdogan. Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is considered a terrorist group by the U.S.
Kurdish commanders and fighters say they feel betrayed by their erstwhile allies.
“The SDF showed good faith to the security mechanism agreement between the U.S. and Turkey. This left our people defenseless,” the SDF tweeted on its official account.
The group has also called for a no-fly zone over the area, similar to what the U.S. did in in Iraq to protect Kurdish communities from Saddam Hussein’s crackdown in 1991.
In a statement earlier on Wednesday, the SDF called on the international community and all countries in the international coalition against ISIS to “carry out their responsibilities and avoid a possible impending humanitarian disaster.”
“This attack will spill the blood of thousands of innocent civilians because our border areas are overcrowded,” it said.
According to multiple current and former U.S. officials, the White House’s announcement on Sunday blindsided not just America’s Kurdish partners but almost everyone — senior officials at the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House, lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East.
On Monday, Trump warned in a tweet that if Turkey — a longtime American ally with NATO’s second-largest standing army — did anything that he considered to be “off limits,” he would “totally destroy and obliterate” its economy.
The White House said in its statement Sunday that Turkey would now be responsible for all ISIS fighters captured over the past two years.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu defended the operation, saying it was being carried out in accordance with international law.
“Region will be cleared of terrorists, Syria’s border security and territorial integrity will be guaranteed, displaced people will be able to return safely to their homes, peace and safety will prevail in the region,” he tweeted.