Turkish troops and Syrian rebel allies attacked Kurdish militia in north-east Syria on Wednesday with air strikes and artillery before a cross-border ground operation that could transform an eight-year-old war.
The assault days after US President Donald Trump pulled American troops out of the way, prompted denunciations from senior members of his Republican Party saying he abandoned the Syrian Kurds, loyal allies of Washington.
“The Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian National Army launched the land operation the east of the Euphrates River as part of Operation Peace Spring,” the Turkish defence ministry tweeted, following a day of pounding the area from the air.
Turkish media reported troops entering Syria at four points, two close to Tel Abyad and two close to Ras al Ain further east.
Turkey told the United Nations Security Council in a letter seen by Reuters its military operation would be “proportionate, measured and responsible.” The 15-member body will meet to discuss Syria at the request of Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland.
The 22-member Arab League will hold an emergency meeting on Saturday.
Thousands fled Ras al Ain to Hasaka province, held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkish air strikes killed at least five civilians and three SDF fighters and wounded dozens of civilians, the SDF said.
Reuters journalists at Akcakale on the Turkish side of the frontier watched as explosions struck Tel Abyad. After dark, the red flare of rockets fired across the border into Tel Abyad and flames burned near town. Explosions from Tel Abyad could be heard eight hours into the bombardment. A witness said civilians were fleeing en masse.
SDF fighters repelled a ground attack by Turkish troops in Tel Abyad, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said on Twitter.
The assault on the Kurds – for years Washington’s main allies in Syria – is potentially one of the biggest shifts in the Syrian war that has drawn in global and regional powers. The Kurds played a leading role in capturing territory from Islamic State, and now hold the largest swathe of Syria outside President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia, Assad’s strongest foreign ally, urged dialogue between Damascus and Syria’s Kurds.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said US troops started withdrawing after a phone call he had with Trump.
Trump called the Turkish assault a “bad idea” and did not endorse it. He expected Turkey to protect civilians and religious minorities and prevent a humanitarian crisis.
One of Trump’s closest Republican allies, Senator Lindsey Graham, said failing to support the Kurds would be “the biggest mistake of his presidency” and unveiled a framework for sanctions with Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen.
“While the Administration refuses to act against Turkey, I expect strong bipartisan support,” Graham said in a statement.
Representative Liz Cheney, a Republican hawk, said: “The US is abandoning our ally the Kurds, who fought ISIS (Islamic State) on the ground and helped protect the US homeland. This decision aids America’s adversaries, Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and paves the way for resurgence of ISIS.”
Trump’s decision was denounced by Kurds as a “stab in the back”.
The SDF controls much of the territory once held by Islamic State and holds thousands of Islamic State fighters and thousands of relatives in detention.
The US pull-out prompted concerns that some prisoners might escape in the chaos of the Turkish incursion.
One prison where ISIS detainees are held was hit by a Turkish air strike, the SDF said on Twitter.
An official said the US military took two high profile Islamic State militants held by Kurdish-led fighters and moved them from Syria.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the individuals were at a secure location but offered no further details.
The SDF halted operations against Islamic State because of the Turkish offensive, US officials and a Kurdish source said.
Turkey was poised to enter north-east Syria since US troops fighting alongside Kurdish-led forces started leaving.
Erdogan, announcing the start of the action, said the aim was to eliminate what he called a “terror corridor” on Turkey’s southern border.
World powers fear the Turkish action could open a new chapter in Syria’s war and worsen regional turmoil. Ankara intends to create a “safe zone” to return millions of refugees to Syrian soil.
In the build-up to the offensive, Syria said it was determined to confront Turkish aggression.
A Turkish security source told Reuters the military offensive started with air strikes. Turkish howitzer fire then hit bases and ammunition depots of the Kurdish YPG militia. Turkey says the YPG, the main component of the U.-backed SDF, is a terrorist group linked to Kurdish insurgents.
The artillery strikes, which also targeted YPG gun and sniper positions, were aimed at sites away from residential areas, the Turkish source said.
Turkish media said several mortar shells landed on the Turkish side of the border but there were no casualties.
The Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria declared a state of “general mobilisation” before calling on its people to head to the border “to fulfil their moral duty and show resistance in these sensitive, historic moments”.
Erdogan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun said Turkey had no ambition in north-eastern Syria except to neutralise the threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate local people from what he called “the yoke of armed thugs”.
Turkey was taking over leadership of the fight against Islamic State in Syria, he said.