Turkey is on the brink of launching its long-awaited offensive on north-east Syria, a senior Turkish official said on Wednesday, defying an international outcry over the threat posed to US-backed Kurdish forces and the campaign against Isis jihadis.
An aide to the Turkish president said shortly after 1am local time that the Turkish military “will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly”, signalling the imminent start of an offensive just hours after president Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned from a trip to Serbia.
Fahrettin Altun, the president’s director of communications, said that members of a Kurdish militia backed by the US in the campaign against Isis would have two options. “They can defect or we will have [to] stop them from disrupting our counter-Isis efforts,” he wrote on Twitter.
The looming assault comes after Donald Trump appeared to give the green light to a Turkish operation on Monday following a phone call with Mr Erdogan, and said that he was handing over responsibility for the battle against Sunni jihadis Isis to Ankara.
The US president was hit by a fierce backlash after announcing that US troops in the region would be pulled out of the immediate area of a Turkish operation. He later threatened to “obliterate” the Turkish economy if it overstepped unspecified “limits”. Russia on Wednesday accused Mr Trump of playing “a very dangerous game” that threatened to destabilise the entire region.
Washington had armed and trained the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), spearheaded by Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units or YPG, as ground troops for the fight against Isis in north-east Syria, which was home to the capital of Isis’ self-proclaimed caliphate. But Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist group with intimate links to Kurdish militants who have waged a 35-year insurgency on Turkish soil. It was enraged by the decision by the US, a fellow Nato member, to support Kurdish forces in Syria — and has long vowed to attack.
The SDF has characterised the US’s redeployment of troops away from the Syrian-Turkish border as a betrayal. The US allies have also warned that chaos caused by a battle with Turkey could give Isis militants a chance to regroup.
Responding to news of the imminent assault, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called for dialogue with Kurdish groups, and accused Mr Trump of playing “a very dangerous game . . . such frivolous treatment of a very sensitive issue can destabilise the entire region. This must be avoided at all costs”.
Russia’s military support for Damascus swung the more than eight-year long civil war in the ruling regime’s favour but has dragged Moscow into a long-running effort to forge some form of post-conflict settlement. Mr Lavrov met the Kurdish leader in Iraq on Monday and spoke to his Turkish counterpart on Tuesday, urging Ankara to respect Syria’s “territorial and political integrity”.
Military analysts expect the assault to begin in an area near Tal Abyad, an Arab-majority town just across the border with Turkey. Around 50 US troops have already withdrawn from a stretch between the town and Ras al-Ayn, 100km to the east, according to a US official.
Turkey is launching the offensive alongside its Syrian proxy forces, opposition rebel groups mostly positioned in north-west Syria where Turkey has already extended its presence. Ankara has backed anti-government militants in Syria’s bloody civil war.
Yusuf Hammoud, a spokesperson for the Syrian National Army, a rebel faction backed by Turkey, said the militant group had been preparing to battle Kurdish forces for months. “Our work in the national army up until the last couple of months is to make our preparations for the battle,” said Mr Hammoud.
But fears are growing for civilians who could once again be caught up in the military operations. Aid organisations have estimated there are just under 500,000 people living within 5km of the Syrian-Turkish border east of the Euphrates river, including some 91,000 people who had fled there from other parts of Syria.
Additional reporting by Asmaa al-Omar