NATO member Turkey's military has begun an invasion of areas of northeastern Syria evacuated by U.S. troops, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday. The operation is aimed at mostly-Kurdish forces partnered with the U.S.
In a tweet, Erdogan said his military "just launched Operation Peace Spring against PKK/YPG and Daesh terrorists in northern Syria."
"Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area," Erdogan added.
The main fighting force of the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces is the YPG (People's Protection Units). Erdogan claims that the YPG has links to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), a group in eastern Turkey labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey and the U.S.
Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Earlier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that there had been shelling around the northeastern Syrian border town of Ras al-Ayn.
Turkey's military operation has faced open opposition from the U.S. military, which on Monday announced that Turkey had been cut off from access to the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), depriving Turkey's air forces of surveillance intelligence.
However, an Oct. 6 White House announcement, followed by a series of Tweets from President Donald Trump, stated that the estimated 50 U.S. troops in northeastern Syria were being withdrawn to avoid the potential for a clash with the invading Turks.
Trump also restated his intention to withdraw all of the estimated 1,000 U.S. troops remaining in Syria, but gave no timeline.
The SDF has described the U.S. withdrawal as a "stab in the back" to a loyal ally that suffered an estimated 11,000 casualties in the long campaign that drove ISIS from its last territorial strongholds.
In statements, the SDF also vowed to "defend our land at all costs."
CNN reported from the scene in northeastern Syria that civilians were clogging roads as they fled south to avoid Turkish airstrikes.
From the Turkish town of Akcakale on the Syrian border, across from the flashpoint Syrian town of Tal Abyad, the Associated Press reported that the Turkish airstrikes were hitting Ras al-Ayn.
Akcakale had previously been the site of a joint operations center for U.S. and Turkish troops in coordinating joint air and ground patrols in northeastern Syria, an effort to ease Turkish concerns about the presence of the SDF.
Only last week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper referred to Akcakale in remarks to reporters traveling with him and expressed his hopes for the continuation of the joint patrols.
The Defense Department had also posted photos of SDF fighters withdrawing from the area and dismantling fortifications.
Before Erdogan's announcement, Trump sent out a tweet restating his position that the U.S. had become bogged down at immense cost in pointless and never-ending wars in the Mideast, and U.S. troops should be brought home.
"Fighting between various groups that has been going on for hundreds of years," Trump said. "USA should never have been in Middle East. Moved our 50 soldiers out. Turkey MUST take over captured ISIS fighters that Europe refused to have returned. The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!"
Trump's order to withdraw U.S. troops has faced harsh criticism from his closest Republican allies in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and from retired military officers who have normally been supportive.
On Fox News Tuesday night, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, the former Army vice chief of staff, said that the U.S. essentially clearing the way for a Turkish invasion was "a recipe for disaster."
Trump has threatened to "obliterate" Turkey's economy unless the Turkish military uses restraint but Keane said "I don't know any military incursion that wouldn't do harm."
One of the main fears expressed by critics of the withdrawal is that the SDF would abandon the camps where they guard thousands of captured ISIS prisoners. The SDF fighters "are not going to stay guarding detainees" as they turn to face the Turks, Keane said.
In his tweet announcement, Erdogan said the Turkish military was joined by the Syrian National Army, formerly known as the Free Syrian Army, an irregular force once backed and supplied by the U.S. before splitting with the SDF.
Erdogan has also previously made clear that one of the main objectives of a Turkish invasion would be to create a "safe zone" 20 miles deep and 300 miles wide east of the Euphrates River stretching to the Iraqi border where about two million Syrian refugees now in Turkey could be sent.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.