Turkey Begins Offensive Against U.S. Ally in Syria


The Turkish military began an offensive in Syria to seize territory held by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, opening a new front in the war-ravaged country and drawing disapproval from President Trump, who had shifted U.S. troops out of the area.

Turkish authorities kicked off the operation on Wednesday despite U.S. warnings that it would punish Turkey if it attacked the Kurdish militants, Washington’s partner in the fight against Islamic State in northeastern Syria. The Kurdish militias have vowed to defend their semiautonomous region, which borders Turkey.

Seconds after Turkish President

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

announced the offensive had started, Kurdish-led forces in Syria said they were witnessing Turkish jet fighters conducting airstrikes on the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain.

American troops began withdrawing from the Syria-Turkey border, marking a major shift in U.S. policy as Washington pulls back from a key partner in the fight against Islamic State—the Kurds—ahead of a Turkish offensive against them. Photo: Delil Souleiman/Getty Images

Turkish officials said their twin goals in the offensive, Turkey’s third in Syria since 2016, were to drive armed Kurdish groups it views as terrorists back from its border and create a safe zone to relocate millions of Syrians who have fled the eight-year conflict.

Mr. Erdogan has said he wanted Turkey to seize control of a 300-mile strip inside Syria that is under Kurdish control. Turkish officials said they would first focus on conquering a narrower, 70-mile section between Ras al-Ain and Tal-Abiad, another Syrian border town.

Battleground

The U.S. is withdrawing troops from inside a 300-mile strip that Turkey wants as a ‘safe zone’ for displaced Syrians.

Areas of control in Syria, Oct. 7

Kurdish forces and allies

Turkish army/opposition forces

Publicly known U.S. bases/positions

Locations U.S. is known to be leaving

“Our Turkish military will achieve a huge success,” Mr. Erdogan said in a video broadcast on Turkish television.

Mr. Trump said he didn’t support Turkey’s actions.

“The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea,” the president said in a statement issued several hours after the military operation began.

He said Ankara was responsible for protecting civilians and ensuring the offensive didn’t help the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS.

Mr. Trump also said that no U.S. troops remained in harm’s way, and that Turkey had committed to protecting civilians and ensuring there is no humanitarian crisis, “and we will hold them to this commitment.”

Civilians fled Turkish airstrikes on the town of Ras al-Ain in northeastern Syria on Wednesday.


Photo:

delil souleiman/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Mr. Trump reiterated his stance that Turkey “is now responsible for ensuring all ISIS fighters being held captive remain in prison and that ISIS does not reconstitute in any way, shape, or form.”

Inside Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said it was sending hundreds of its fighters toward the northeast, reorienting them from focusing on Islamic State.

“We have been forced now to pause the war against ISIS to protect the border,” SDF spokesman

Mustafa Bali

said.

Mr. Trump had condoned the Turkish operation on Sunday night and ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from positions on the Syrian side of the border, where they had served as an unofficial buffer between Turkish and Kurdish forces.

Amid sharp opposition from U.S. lawmakers concerned about the fate of the Kurds, the president then threatened retaliation against the Turkish economy if Ankara takes steps he considers to be off limits. He also praised the U.S. relationship with Turkey and said he would host Mr. Erdogan in the U.S. next month.

Mr. Trump on Wednesday defended his decision to pull American soldiers out of the area where the offensive was under way. “I did not want to fight these endless, senseless wars—especially those that don’t benefit the United States,” he said.

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U.S. senators have started drafting legislation to impose sanctions against the assets of senior Turkish officials, including Mr. Erdogan.

“We can’t abandon the Kurds now. We can’t turn it over to Turkey. To think that will work is really delusional and dangerous,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said on Fox News. “Pray for the Kurds,” he said.

French President

Emmanuel Macron

said Wednesday he was very worried about the Turkish military plans, a view echoed by other leaders in Europe. NATO chief

Jens Stoltenberg

called on Turkey to act with restraint and said he would raise the issue with Mr. Erdogan in Istanbul on Friday.

Russian President

Vladimir Putin,

the main backer of Syrian President

Bashar al-Assad,

urged Mr. Erdogan in a phone call on Wednesday not to damage overall efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis, according to the Kremlin.

The Assad regime condemned the Turkish incursion. It has vowed to reclaim control of the northeastern area administered by the Kurds.

Another of the Syrian government’s supporters, Iran, urged Turkey to respect Syria’s national sovereignty.

Relations between Turkey and the U.S. have been rocky. The two members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have been sparring over Ankara’s decision to procure S-400 advanced air-defense missile systems from Russia, which U.S. officials say pose a security risk to the West’s military alliance.

The U.S. military warned earlier this year that Islamic State was already regaining strength in Syria, months after Mr. Trump declared an official end to the group’s self-declared caliphate, which stretched across the Iraq-Syria border. The U.S. has about 1,000 military personnel in Syria, where they work side-by-side with the Kurdish forces to prevent Islamic State from regaining a foothold in the region.

The Syrian Democratic Forces are holding about 12,000 Islamic State fighters in detention centers in Syria. About 2,000 of them are foreign fighters, and the U.S. has been unable to reach agreements with world leaders to take the fighters back, leaving their fate in limbo.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trump said he expects Turkey to assume responsibility for them. “Turkey MUST take over captured ISIS fighters that Europe refused to have returned,” he wrote on Twitter.

Islamic State fighters demonstrated their ability to strike in northeastern Syria before dawn on Wednesday when two militants attacked an SDF security point in Raqqa, the onetime capital of the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, leading to more than an hour of clashes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The militants threw grenades, before being surrounded by local security forces, and blew themselves up.

SDF officials said the incident highlighted the risk of relaxing the fight against the extremist group, which has resorted to sleeper cell attacks since it lost territorial control.

The Kurdish issue became a source of tension between Ankara and Washington in 2014 when the U.S. shifted tack in the Syrian conflict, steering away from supporting rebels fighting the Assad regime and bonding with Kurdish forces to fight Islamic State.

Mr. Erdogan consistently condemned that alliance, saying the Syrian Kurds have ties with a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.

Months of negotiations between Washington and Ankara failed to work out a compromise that would allay Turkey’s security concerns while extending the U.S. partnership with the Kurds in Syria.

Negotiators had hoped to work out a deal for Kurdish fighters to peacefully pull back from the border and cede control to Syrian fighters acceptable to Turkey. Those talks are now dead.

Write to David Gauthier-Villars at David.Gauthier-Villars@wsj.com, Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com and Isabel Coles at isabel.coles@wsj.com

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