ISTANBUL — Turkey’s government launched a long-expected offensive into northeastern Syria on Wednesday, in what initially appeared to be a limited operation targeting Syrian Kurdish fighters who have played a central role in the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State militant group.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the offensive in a Twitter message shortly after 4 p.m. local time. “The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched #OperationPeaceSpring against PKK/YPG and Daesh terrorists in northern Syria,” he wrote, referring to the Syrian Kurdish force as well as the Islamic State.
“Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” he added. Erdogan’s government has advocated for the creation of a Turkish-controlled “safe zone” in northeastern Syria that it asserts could accommodate millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
Turkish media broadcast footage of smoke and explosions in Syria’s border towns. But there were no reports of any major troop movements on Wednesday, after weeks of buildup and anticipation that included belligerent speeches by Turkish officials, footage of military convoys advancing toward the frontier and dire warnings from Turkey’s Western allies and aid agencies about the catastrophic consequences of a large-scale invasion.
In a more limited foray, Turkish warplanes and artillery shelled towns along the border, stretching from Ain Issa, about 30 miles from the Euphrates River to Malikiyah, near Syria’s border with Iraq. Turkish shelling killed at least two civilians, according to the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, as the Syrian Kurdish-led militias are known. Mortar fire from Syria landed in at least two Turkish towns, Turkish media reported.
The offensive has presented the Trump administration with a dilemma as it has sought to balance Washington’s partnership with Turkey, a NATO ally, and its links to the Syrian Kurdish forces that helped beat back the Islamic State.
The White House announced Sunday that it was withdrawing U.S. troops from the area that Turkey planned to invade, igniting a firestorm of criticism in Congress — including from Republican leaders, who accused President Trump of abandoning the Kurds. In sometimes conflicting statements since then, Trump has defended the removal of U.S. troops.
“The United States has spent EIGHT TRILLION DOLLARS fighting and policing in the Middle East,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, using an inflated figure that has been repeatedly debunked. “Thousands of our Great Soldiers have died or been badly wounded. Millions of people have died on the other side. GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE…..”
“Should have never been there in the first place!” he added later, after Erdogan’s announcement that the offensive had begun.
Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists allied with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. A spokesman for Erdogan, Fahrettin Altun, writing in The Washington Post on Wednesday, called for international support for Turkey’s offensive.
“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,” Altun wrote.
Officials said they were uncertain whether Turkish forces would conduct a symbolic feint inside the border — which they said could enable the U.S. troops to return to reactivate the safe zone — or would force their way deeper into Syria.
A U.S. official said the United States on Wednesday provided Turkey with a list of no-strike locations where U.S. personnel were stationed.
Outside experts have cautioned that a large-scale Turkish operation, if it precipitated a security breakdown at prisons holding Islamic State militants, could prompt a larger U.S. withdrawal from Syria. The American presence, which includes about 1,000 troops in northeastern Syria, is a lean force dispersed across a number of bases.
The United Nations and nongovernmental groups have warned of the humanitarian toll of a large-scale invasion, which could create thousands of new refugees and displaced people and risk civilian casualties because of shelling or airstrikes.
A medic from the Kurdish Red Crescent, speaking on the condition of anonymity fearing retribution from Turkey, said that hospitals have stockpiled drugs in basements across the region and that doctors are on high alert. “We’re worried, of course,” he said. “God forbid there are airstrikes or mortars close to us.”
Sabah, a Turkish newspaper close to Erdogan’s government, published a report Tuesday describing how the battle might unfold. It said Turkish armed forces would wait for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops before commencing any operation. Warplanes and howitzers would pound enemy positions, then Turkish troops would enter Syria from several points along the border, east of the Euphrates River.
The military would advance as far as 18 miles into Syrian territory, the report said, without naming its source. After the operation was completed, Turkey would “continue its humanitarian work to bring back locals in the area.”
On the other side of the Turkish border on Wednesday, many residents were steeling themselves for the worst. Mikael Mohammed, a Kurdish father of three who owns a clothing store in Tal Abyad, a quarter-mile from the Turkish frontier, said he had not had any customers since Tuesday. U.S. troops based in the town withdrew early Monday after the White House announcement.
“All the shops around me are open, except that there are no people,” Mohammed said in a telephone interview. “The only people heading to the marketplace today are those who need to buy food or things that are absolutely necessary. People who are out there in the streets look as if they are going to someone’s funeral.”
And the town itself was divided. Some residents supported the Syrian Kurdish force, which formed the core of the SDF, as it faced off against Turkey’s military might. Others supported rebel groups backed by Turkey.
“We have people who were displaced from Afrin because of the Turkish invasion — they are worried that they will be displaced once again,” Mohammed said, referring to Ankara’s 2018 military offensive against a Kurdish enclave west of Tal Abyad.
“People are scared. When we used to see U.S. troops in the streets of Tal Abyad, we would feel safe; they were here to protect us. Yesterday, we saw U.S. troops, but this time they were on their way out of the area, and that terrified people,” he said.
Dadouch and Khattab reported from Beirut. Karen DeYoung in Washington, Liz Sly in Beirut and Louisa Loveluck in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.