Rights groups and anti-war activists warned of a looming “humanitarian catastrophe” Wednesday as Turkish forces invaded northeastern Syria and launched airstrikes against Kurdish targets, forcing civilians to flee in panic. Activists reported airstrikes on a town on Syria’s northern border and a Kurdish official said warplanes targeted civilians, causing a “huge panic.”
The attack comes days after U.S. President Donald Trump gave his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a green light to begin the operation by announcing the abrupt withdrawal of American forces from northeastern Syria.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) warned in a statement Wednesday that Turkey’s assault “will spill the blood of thousands of innocent civilians because our border areas are overcrowded.”
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali accused Turkey of deliberately targeting “civilian areas.” Fighters with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which leads the SDF, told CNN that hundreds of civilians scrambled to escape northeastern Syria as Turkey began bombarding the area.
Also on Wednesday, ISIS militants targeted a post of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, which was once the de facto ISIS capital at the height of the militants’ power in the region.
The Turkish operation will ignite new fighting in Syria’s 8-year-old war, potentially displacing hundreds of thousands of people, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights reported that people had begun fleeing the border town of Tal Abyad. Kurdish politician Nawaf Khalil, who is in northern Syria, said some people were leaving the town for villages farther south.
The local civilian Kurdish authority known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria asked the international community to live up to its responsibilities as “a humanitarian catastrophe might befall our people.”
Syria’s Foreign Ministry condemned Turkey’s plans for an invasion, calling it a “blatant violation” of international law and vowing to repel the incursion. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Washington of playing “very dangerous games”: “Such reckless attitude to this highly sensitive subject can set fire to the entire region, and we have to avoid it at any cost,” he said. Russian news media said Moscow communicated that position to Washington.