Turkey begins military offensive against Kurds in Syria; thousands flee

Smoke billows from a village on the Syrian side of the border on Oct. 9, 2019, in Akcakale, Turkey. The military action is part of a campaign to extend Turkish control of more of northern Syria, a large swath of which is currently held by Syrian Kurds, whom Turkey regards as a threat. | Getty Images/Burak Kara

Thousands of civilians have been forced to flee their homes this week as a result of NATO member Turkey beginning its offensive against Kurdish rebels in Syria who were backed by the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State. 

Just days after President Donald Trump decided Sunday night that he would pull back U.S. forces in Syria, Turkish and Syrian officials confirmed that Turkey launched airstrikes and fired artillery across the border into northeastern Syria on Wednesday. 

Two civilians were killed while two others were injured as a result of the airstrikes, according to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

Thousands of people have reportedly fled Ras al Ain, a Syrian border town held by SDF, according to Reuters.

A spokesman for SDF, a faction backed by the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State but considered by Turkey to be a terrorist organization, accused Turkish forces of conducting airstrikes on “civilian areas.”

“There is a huge panic among people of the region,” Mustafa Bali, head of SDF’s press office in northern Syria, tweeted. 

A senior U.S. defense official told CNN on Wednesday that the offensive has already had a “detrimental effect" on operations to counter Islamic State activities, saying that they have "effectively stopped.”

Trump’s decision to pull back U.S. forces from the area was heavily criticized. Critics included some of his evangelical supporters. Critics feared that the decision betrayed U.S. allies and could lead to the resurgence of the Islamic State. 

On Wednesday, Trump issued a statement through the White House clarifying that the U.S. “does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea.” 

“There are no American soldiers in the area. From the first day, I entered the political arena, I made it clear that I did not want to fight these endless, senseless wars — especially those that don’t benefit the United States,” Trump said in the statement. “Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place — and we will hold them to this commitment.”

Trump claimed that Turkey is “now responsible for ensuring all ISIS fighters being held captive remain in prison.” Critics also feared that a Turkish offensive against SDF could result in the release of Islamic State fighters imprisoned by the Kurds.

Trump also stressed that Turkey is also responsible for ensuring that “ISIS does not reconstitute in any way, shape, or form.”

“We expect Turkey to abide by all of its commitments, and we continue to monitor the situation closely,” he stated. 

A senior adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told CNN that responsibility for Islamic State fighters can’t fall to Turkey alone. 

“We never said we would shoulder this burden all by ourselves," Senior Adviser Gülnur Aybet was quoted as saying.

Erdogan is scheduled to visit the White House next month. Aybet said that Erdogan and Trump will discuss more details about dealing with Islamic State fighters at that time. 

News of the Turkish military offensive drew reactions from leading conservative evangelicals.

Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelical icon Billy Graham and head of the humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse who has been supportive of many of the Trump administration’s social policies, stressed that the Erdogan government “can’t be trusted.” 

“Join me in praying TODAY as the Turkish army has invaded Syria in the area that the U.S. military withdrew from. They say they want to create a safe zone,” Graham wrote in a Facebook post. “The Turks have a dismal record on human rights; and frankly, I’m concerned that they can’t be trusted. We need to pray for the Kurds and for Christians and other minorities who live in this region.”

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, detailed the magnitude of what the Kurdish people are facing. 

“Kurdish Christians (and others among the brave Kurds) have stood up for the United States and for freedom and human dignity against ISIS terrorism and the bloodthirsty Assad regime,” Moore tweeted. “What they are now facing from Erdogan’s authoritarian Turkey is horrifying beyond words.”

In another tweet, Moore explained that one of the “early priorities of the resurrected Jesus was to hear the cries of persecuted people in Syria.” 

“He still does,” he added. “Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ among those targeted for slaughter, right now.”

Two United Nations diplomats told CNN that there will be a private U.N. Security Council meeting held Thursday morning to discuss the ongoing situation in Syria. The meeting was requested by five European countries that include France, Germany and the United Kingdom. 

The spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters on Wednesday that he is “very concerned” by the developments in northern Syria and said civilians should be protected "in accordance with international law.”

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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