Turkey has begun its long-awaited assault on Kurdish-held areas of northeast Syria, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced Wednesday, as Turkish warplanes began striking across the border.
Turkish television showed smoke rising from the Kurdish-held town of Ras al-Ain as fighter jets began attacking the positions of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led force that led the fight against Islamic State (Isil).
Shelling was also reported in Tal Abyad, another SDF-controlled town 100km away.
"Our aim is to destroy the terror corridor, which is trying to be established on our southern border, and bring peace to the region," Mr Erdoğan said, announcing that the operation would be known as "Peace Spring".
"We will protect the territorial integrity of Syria, and free the people of the region from the clutches of terror," he said. Turkey considers the SDF to be a part of the PKK terrorist group.
The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched #OperationPeaceSpring 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.
- Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (@RTErdogan) October 9, 2019
Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, confirmed that the attack had begun. "Turkish warplanes have started to carry out airstrikes on civilian areas. There is a huge panic among people of the region," he said.
Kurdish and Arab civilians began fleeing from the border towns in the face of the offensive, according to Kurdish media.
According to local sources, there were also strikes on the border town of Derik, which is miles outside Mr Erdogan's proposed "safe zone" as well as the outskirts of the highly populated Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli.
A strike was also reported in Ain Issa, close to where a camp holding foreign Islamic State wives and children, including some British citizens
Local authorities earlier declared a state of emergency and called on civilian volunteers to head to the front lines.
"We announce three days of general mobilisation in northern and eastern Syria," the local administration said, urging all civilians to "head to the border with Turkey to fulfill their duty".
Turkish warplanes have started to carry out airstrikes on civilian areas. There is a huge panic among people of the region.
- Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) October 9, 2019
Turkey said ambassadors from all nations on the UN Security Council, which includes Britain, France, and the US, had been summoned for a briefing in Ankara about the beginning of the operation.
The EU called on Turkey to halt the attack. "I call on Turkey as well as the other actors to act with restraint and to stop operations already as we are speaking under way," said Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president.
US officials meanwhile reportedly said they had no plans to take control of prisons holding Islamic State (Isil) suspects if their Kurdish guards withdrew, further raising fears that jihadists could escape amid the offensive.
The first phase of the Turkish attack is expected to begin along a 120km stretch between the border towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain - the same area that US forces evacuated on Donald Trump's orders on Monday.
Turkey is likely to pound the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with artillery fire and airstrikes before beginning a ground incursion.
Turkey's Syrian rebel proxy groups but they will act with the support of Turkish commandos and under the cover of Turkish airpower. Turkish defence officials said they had removed a section of the concrete border wall in anticipation of the attack.
Hulusi Akar, Turkey's defence minister, said: "Our efforts concerning the offensive are continuing, the deployment, the preparations are continuing."
While the SDF proved adept at combatting Isil, they lack heavy weaponry and anti-aircraft equipment and are likely to struggle in a confrontation with Turkey's modern military.
Their position has been further weakened after they agreed to demolish their fortifications in the area at the request of the US, which as recently as last weekend was still trying to broker a compromise to forestall a Turkish offensive.
The SDF said Turkish troops shelled one of their positions near Ras al-Ain late on Tuesday night but that their forces suffered no casualties.
Meanwhile, Isil fighters attacked an SDF position in Raqqa, the former capital of their so-called caliphate, in an apparent effort to capitalise on the confusion caused by the looming Turkish attack.
Three suicide bombers struck an SDF position in the centre of the city late Tuesday in what the SDF called "the initial repercussions of the Turkish attack". There were no immediate reports of casualties from the attack.
It is really a shame that the whole world calmly watching annihilation of a people who sacrificed their lives in order to achieve a secure and peaceful world free from terrorism. Indeed, nothing is harder than leaving your companion alone in the trench in battle.
- Shervan Derwish (@shervanderwish) October 8, 2019
US officials told the Washington Post they had no plans to intervene and seize control of the string of Kurdish prisons where thousands of Isil fighters, including British jihadists, are being held.
The SDF have warned they may have no choice but to abandon the prisons and send all available forces north to confront Turkish troops on the border.
In the face of a backlash from congressional Republicans, Mr Trump has begun sending deeply mixed messages about the American position on Turkey's offensive.
After initially appearing to wash his hands of the Kurds, he said Tuesday that "in no way have we abandoned the Kurds" and threatened economic sanctions on Turkey if there was "any unforced or unnecessary fighting".
Mr Erdoğan is expected to meet Mr Trump at the White House on November 13.
In an article published in the Washington Post, Fahrettin Altun, an aide to Mr Erdogan, framed Turkey's intervention in northeast Syria in terms designed to appeal to Mr Trump, who has often complained of America's involvement in "endless wars" abroad.
"America has borne the brunt of the counter-Islamic State campaign for too long," Mr Altun said, adding that US troops in Syria "deserve to return home".
He urged Kurdish fighters to lay down their guns and refuse to listen to their commanders' orders to resist Turkey's advance. If they refuse to join Turkey "we will have no choice but to stop them from disrupting our counter-Islamic State efforts," he said.
He also framed Turkey's plans for a "safe zone" in northern Syria as a win-win for the international community, saying that it would give Syrian refugees in Turkey and Europe a safe place to return to.
However, human rights groups have warned the Turkish place potentially involves vast displacement of local populations in north east Syria to make room for more than 1 million refugees and questioned whether Turkey has a real plan to support such a large population.
Kurdish groups pointed to the fate of Afrin, a city in northwest Syria that was overrun by Turkish and Syrian rebel forces in 2018. Syrian rebel troops were accused of killing civilians and looting once they took control.