Turkish forces pushed deeper into northeastern Syria on Friday, the third day of Ankara’s cross-border offensive against Syrian Kurdish militia, which has set off another mass displacement of civilians and met with widespread condemnation from the international community.
There were casualties on both sides and Turkey reported its first military fatality, saying a soldier was killed in the fighting. Earlier, at least six civilians were killed in Turkey and seven civilians have been killed in Syria since Ankara this week launched the air and ground offensive in Syria’s northeast.
The invasion came after US President Donald Trump pulled American troops from their positions near the border and abandoning US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces.
Trump’s unexpected decision drew swift criticism from Republicans and Democrats in Congress. He warned Turkey to act with moderation and safeguard civilians. But the barrages of the invasion so far showed little sign of holding back, and the operation drew widespread criticism.
In Syria, residents fled with their belongings loaded into cars, pickup trucks and motorcycle rickshaws, while others escaped on foot. The UN refugee agency said tens of thousands were on the move, and aid agencies warned that nearly a half-million people near the border were at risk — in scenes similar to those from a few years ago, when civilians fled the Daesh terror group.
On Friday morning, plumes of black smoke billowed from the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad as Turkey continued bombarding the area.
The Turkish ministry statement that reported the death of a soldier also said three soldiers were wounded in the action but did not provide details. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said a total of 342 “terrorists” — Ankara’s parlance for Syrian Kurdish militiamen — were killed in the incursion so far.
Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters terrorists linked to a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey and says the offensive is necessary for its own national security.
Turkish officials said the Kurdish militia has fired dozens of mortars into Turkish border towns the past two days, including Akcakale, killing six civilians, including a 9-month-old boy and three girls under 15. On the Syrian side, seven civilians and eight Kurdish militiamen have been killed since the operation began, according to activists in Syria.
The Turkish Defense Ministry said the offensive was progressing “successfully as planned.”
Iran called on Turkey to "immediately" end its military operation in northeastern Syria and withdraw its forces.
In a statement on Thursday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry stressed that “the dire humanitarian situation and the dangers posed to civilians in the conflict area” necessitate “the immediate cessation of attacks and the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syria.”
While understanding Turkey's security concerns, the statement said, Iran does not consider military action as a means to address the woes, expressing Tehran’s opposition to the offensive which would bring about “widespread human and material damage”.
The statement further read that the current chaotic situation in the region is the result of “interference of extra-regional” countries, the US in particular.
It expressed the Islamic Republic’s readiness to play the role of a mediator to deescalate tensions between Turkey and Syria. The ministry underscored “peaceful measures and respecting Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity” as the sole way to ease tensions.
Reemergence of Daesh
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was worried the Turkish invasion in Syria could unleash the Daesh terrorist group once again.
Speaking during a visit to Turkmenistan, Putin said he doubted that the Turkish army has enough resources to promptly take control of Daesh prison camps, saying he fears the captured Daesh terrorists who have been until now held by the Syrian Kurdish militia “could just run away.”
“We have to be aware of this and mobilize the resources of our intelligence to undercut this emerging tangible threat,” Putin said.
Syrian Kurdish forces had been holding more than 10,000 Daesh members captured during the war against the terror group in camps and detention centers in this part of Syria. But this week they said they are being forced to abandon some of those positions to fight the Turkish invasion.
Separately, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged Ankara to exercise restraint in its incursion though he acknowledged what he said was Turkey’s legitimate security concern about the Syrian Kurdish militiamen.
In a joint news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Stoltenberg also expressed worry that the Turkish offensive may “jeopardize” gains made against the Daesh terror group in the war in Syria. Cavusoglu said Turkey expected solidarity from its allies.
“It is not enough to say you understand Turkey’s legitimate concerns, we want to see this solidarity in a clear way,” he said.
Cavusoglu has said the military intends to move 30 kilometers (19 miles) into northern Syria and that its operation will last until all “terrorists are neutralized.”
European Union Council chief Donald Tusk said Turkey’s operation in Syria is of “grave concern.” Abandoning the Kurdish militiamen who have been crucial in the fight against IS “is not only a bad idea” but raises many “questions both of a strategic and moral nature,” Tusk said.
He said Erdogan’s threat to “open the gates” and let Syrian refugees flood into Europe was “totally out of place,” adding that the EU will never accept “that refugees are weaponized and used to blackmail us.”
A French official said Friday that sanctions against Turkey will be “on the table” at next week’s European Union summit, over Ankara’s incursion into Syria.
Amélie de Montchalin, the French secretary for European affairs, told France Inter radio that Europe should respond to what she described as a shocking situation against civilians and Europe’s Kurdish allies against IS in Syria.
European diplomats in Brussels have responded cautiously to the idea of sanctions on Ankara, though the invasion has met with unanimous criticism.
AP and Press TV contributed to this story.