According to state-run Syrian news agency SANA, Turkish forces launched airstrikes against Kurdish and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) positions in al-Hasakah province in northeastern Syria.
According to Saudi broadcaster al-Ikhbariya, Turkish planes attacked SDF headquarters in Hasakah province.
Other reports suggest Turkey targeted the Kurdish YPG militia.
Videos circulating on social media appear to show Turkish forces targeting Kurdish troops near Syria’s border with Iraq with airstrikes, just hours after the U.S. announced it would be pulling out of the region.
Within hours, Turkey was reportedly denying unverified video on Twitter suggesting that it may have launched airstrikes on the Syrian border.
Syrian government-run SANA TV called it ‘Turkish aggression’ targeting the ‘north-eastern countryside’ of Syria.
The Syrian government claimed Monday through state-run media that Turkey began launching aerial attacks across the border, as American troops were obeying U.S. President Donald Trump’s order to withdraw to the United States.
Major U.S. policy shift
The U.S. move marks a major shift in U.S. policy, and effectively abandons the Kurds, who were Washington’s main ally in the years-old battle against ISIS.
The U.S. has told Kurdish fighters that they will not defend the Kurdish fighters from any Turkish attack, an unnamed American official has claimed.
U.S. soldiers previously worked closely with Kurdish forces of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the YPG militia, in the battle to destroy Islamic State’s caliphate.
The departure of the U.S. from the volatile border region could leave Turkey free to crush the Kurds, who hoped to forge their own state in the aftermath of the defeat of ISIS.
The White House released a statement on Sunday, saying Trump spoke with Erogdan, the Turkish president, by telephone to discuss the plans and the U.S. will remove all of its forces from the ‘immediate area’.
‘Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operating into Northern Syria,’ the U.S. statement reads.
‘The Unites States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ”Caliphate,” will no longer be in the immediate area.’
Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria confirmed that U.S. forces had withdrawn from areas at the border with Turkey.
Stabbed in the back
The SDF said they had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by a surprise U.S. statement.
More than 11,000 men and women of the SDF gave their lives fighting ISIS before the group was defeated in March this year.
Preserve Syria’s territorial integrity, says Russia
Russia said Syria’s territorial integrity must be preserved.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov reiterated the Russian position hours after the Turkish announcement.
Lavrov in Erbil
Cutting short Iraq visit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Erbil, the Kurdish capital city, on late Monday, and took part in meetings with Masrour Barzani, prime minister of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and other KRG officials.
Earlier in the day, Lavrov met Iraqi foreign minister Mohammed al-Hakim in Baghdad.
Lavrov was scheduled to stay for several days in Iraq, but he cut short his Iraq visit, and will now return to Moscow directly after his meetings in Erbil.
In his meeting with Barzani, the Russian FM congratulated the formation of the KRG’s ninth cabinet, according to Barzani’s office.
Lavrov also praised the historical ties between the Kurdistan Region and his nation, mentioning that past Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani had spent time in Russia.
During the meeting, both sides emphasized the importance of programs to further develop ties between the two governments. For his part, Barzani welcomed any initiative to promote deeper economic relations with Russia, saying, “We agreed to continue oil and gas investments and explore opportunities in minerals, agriculture and industry.”
Lavrov also commended the security and stability of the Kurdistan Region, affirming his support for Russian companies’ investment in the region and said he supported the establishment of a new direct flight between Erbil and Moscow.
“I underscored the urgency of developments in Syria, and called on Russia to help promote a long-lasting political solution that protects the rights and dignity of all the Syrian peoples, including the Kurdish people,” said Barzani.
Lavrov made a point to laud the Peshmerga’s key role in the fight against Islamic State militants and offered Russia’s support if required.
Barzani and Lavrov concluded their meeting with a detailed discussion of current events in Russia and the importance of continued dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad.
No hesitation to defend
Kurdish forces warned a Turkish invasion threatened to destabilize the area, causing chaos in SDF-controlled prisons and refugee camps packed with battle-hardened jihadists, meaning ISIS terror cells could reform if a ‘security vacuum’ formed.
The SDF that controls much of the northeast region along Turkey’s border, added it ‘will not hesitate for a single moment’ to defend itself from an expected Turkish invasion and threatened ‘all-out war on the entire border’.
The SDF, led by the Kurdish YPG militia, said the Turkish invasion ‘will have a great negative impact’ on the war against ISIS.
It said in a statement: ‘Despite our efforts to avoid any military escalation with Turkey and the flexibility we have shown to move forward in establishing a mechanism for the security of the borders …the American forces did not fulfill their commitments and withdrew their forces from the border areas with Turkey.
‘Turkey is now preparing for an invasion operation of northern and eastern Syria,’ added the SDF, which with U.S. backing in recent years defeated Islamic State, across much of northern and eastern Syria.
The Turkish military operation ‘will have a great negative impact on our war against the Daesh organization and will destroy everything that has been achieved with regards to stability during the last years,’ it added.
In a statement, the SDF said: ‘The American forces did not abide by their commitments and withdrew their forces along the border with Turkey.
Across the Kurdish-held territories of northeastern Syria, people are steeling themselves for a long-threatened assault by Turkish forces, which now seems imminent after Trump withdrew US forces from the area.
“America’s attitude will create a negative impact on the whole region, and what has been built up here, the peace and the stability in this region – this American decision will destroy all the advances, particularly with regards to security,” said Amjed Osman, a spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Council.
“We have always said that Erdogan’s threats are serious. There is no serious international will to bring an end to the Syrian crisis. The Turkish threats mean that the situation in this region will return to point zero. There will be chaos once again,” he added.
Trump dug in his heels after announcing the troop withdrawal.
‘[I]f Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!),’ he boasted.
‘They must, with Europe and others, watch over the captured ISIS fighters and families. The U.S. has done far more than anyone could have ever expected, including the capture of 100% of the ISIS Caliphate. It is time now for others in the region, some of great wealth, to protect their own territory. THE USA IS GREAT!’
Trump had tweeted earlier that ‘I was elected on getting out of these ridiculous endless wars, where our great Military functions as a policing operation to the benefit of people who don’t even like the USA.’
‘The two most unhappy countries at this move are Russia & China, because they love seeing us bogged down, watching over a quagmire, & spending big dollars to do so. When I took over, our Military was totally depleted. Now it is stronger than ever before. The endless and ridiculous wars are ENDING! We will be focused on the big picture, knowing we can always go back & BLAST!’
Trump had in the early morning justified his decision in a five-part 247-word tweetstorm, framing it as part of a larger policy of pulling U.S. troops out of ‘ridiculous Endless Wars’ and insisting that the ISIS caliphate is now ‘100%’ defeated.
‘WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN, the U.S. president wrote in allcaps.
He fumed at European allies’ refusal to accept the repatriation of their citizens who U.S. forces have captured as fighters for the ISIS terror army.
And he appeared unmoved by international concerns that a power vacuum will favor an ISIS resurgence and a Kurdish slaughter.
Trump told reporters at the White House on Monday that he had told Turkish President Erogdan – presumably during a Sunday phone call – that there would be consequences if harm comes to the dozens of remaining American servicemen and women there.
He warned Erdogan: ‘I don’t want anything bad to happen to our people’ during the troop withdrawal, and promised ‘big trouble’ if casualties result.
Trump mainly washed his hands of the Syrian military quagmire, saying any resurgence of the ISIS terror army would no longer be America’s immediate concern.
Countries in what he said is ‘not a friendly neighborhood’ will have to make do without the U.S., Trump said after signing a trade agreement at the White House.
‘Iran is an example. Hates ISIS, and ISIS hates Iran. Iraq, you know all about that. Turkey. Syria,’ he rattled off.
‘Let them take care of it. Let them take care of it. We want to bring our troops back home.’
Trump said the explosive disassembly of the ISIS caliphate had left tens of thousands of people in custody including both soldiers and civilians, ‘and we can’t release them.’
‘I told president Erdogan, ‘It’s going to be your responsibility,’ he said of Turkey’s leader.
Trump didn’t foreclose the idea of bringing U.S. troops back into northern Syria, but warned that ‘we’re 7000 miles away.’
‘These ISIS people, whatever you want to call them – these people are right there,’ he said of nearby nations. And any Islamist resurgence would be ‘right there, they’re touching many of those countries that I just named.’
Trump said it was too costly to keep supporting U.S.-allied Kurdish-led forces in the region fighting the Islamic State.
‘The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so. They have been fighting Turkey for decades,’ Trump said in a series of tweets. Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out.’
The U.S. president’s announcement sent shockwaves through the U.S. government, with officials telling Fox News that top officials at the Defense Department were ‘completely blindsided’ and ‘shocked’ by the order.
Trump reportedly said nothing to Turkey’s President Erdogan about a planned withdrawal during a phone call between the two leaders on Sunday.
By morning’s end he was mounting a full-throated defense on Twitter, saying his decision would disadvantage Russia and China, and emphasizing that he could order troops to return on short notice.
Across the Potomac, the Pentagon was gearing up for a potential blame game.
‘The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey – as did the President – that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria,’ spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. ‘The U.S. Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation.’
Trump’s sudden decision to wash his hands of the troubled region left his political compatriots anxious.
Republican allies of the president lined up to express their outrage at the result for Syria’s Kurdish minority who will soon find themselves trapped in a geographic squeeze.
Trump took incoming from his allies in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called his pullout a ‘retreat’ that ‘would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup.’
Trump’s Republican allies, one after another, condemned his decision. Some focused on potential harm to U.S. interests in the Middle East. Others warned that the troop pullout could doom hundreds of thousands of Kurds to a Turkish genocide.
McConnell was unmoved by Trump’s online justifications, saying senators still see a threat in Syria from the ISIS terror army and other sources of jihadist resurgence.
And ‘[a]s we learned the hard way during the Obama Administration,’ McConnell added, ‘American interests are best served by American leadership, not by retreat or withdrawal.’
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s closest friends in Congress, also blasted him in a tweet, calling the move ‘a stain on America’s honor’ and ‘a disaster in the making.’
‘The biggest lie being told by the administration [is] that ISIS is defeated,’ Graham said on ‘Fox & Friends,’ adding: ‘The caliphate is destroyed but there are thousands of fighters over there. And no, the caliphate would not have been destroyed without the Kurds.’
‘To say to the American people that ISIS has been destroyed in Syria is not true,’ he insisted.
‘The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake,’ former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley tweeted.
‘If reports about US retreat in #Syria are accurate,’ Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in a tweet, ‘the Trump administration has made a grave mistake that will have implications far beyond Syria.’
U.S. House Minority Leader
Kevin McCarthy, the U.S. House of Representative Minority Leader, said on ‘Fox & Friends’ that ‘I want to make sure we keep our word for those who fight with us and help us,’ adding that, ‘If you make a commitment and somebody is fighting with you. America should keep their word.’
Even Texas Sen. Ted Cruz took a shot at Trump on Twitter for leaving the Kurds in the lurch.
‘Our enemies and rivals (Iran, Russia, etc.) don’t abandon their allies; if we want allies to stand with America in the future, we shouldn’t either. Honorable nations stand by their friends,’ Cruz tweeted.
‘It would also be DISGRACEFUL if we sat idly by while Turkey slaughters the Kurds, as public reports suggest that Turkish leader Erdogan explicitly told President Trump he intends to do.’
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2012, also said leaving the Kurds to twist in the wind would be a ‘betrayal.’
Erdogan’s domestic troubles
There is much speculation that the impending attack has been prompted by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s domestic troubles: in important local elections this year the Turkish president lost control of four of Turkey’s major cities, including the capital, Ankara, and economic centre Istanbul. The rejection of his Justice and Development party (AKP) by voters all over the country – including crucial Kurdish blocs – was widely viewed as a recrimination for the government’s handling of Turkey’s economic crisis.
The last time Erdogan’s grip on power slipped, in 2015’s general election, the president restarted the war with the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK). The attempts at a new Turkish incursion into Rojava are seen by many as a fresh attempt to shore up support by rallying Turks around a nationalistic cause.
“The [Turkish] government is in the middle of a deep crisis and they are gradually falling from power. Thus, Erdogan is seeking every opportunity to fulfill his Ottoman fantasies,” said Bahoz Erdal, a member of the PKK executive committee, on an affiliated radio station.
“Erdogan has nothing but the war on the Kurds to maintain his power. It was proved in the latest elections that the [party] the Kurds back would come to power.”
The move also left UN and European leaders aghast over fears of ethnic cleansing.
Following the announcement of Washington’s abrupt decision to stand aside, the UN has said it is ‘preparing for the worst’ in the region, fearing an assault could send civilians fleeing.
The UN warned Turkey not to allow a civilian massacre after the U.S. announced it would step aside and allow Erogdan to move his troops across the Syrian border.
UN officials said any new offensive from Ankara would lead to high civilian casualties and lead to mass displacement.