ISTANBUL – NATO is urging Turkey to exercise restraint in its incursion into northeastern Syria.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged Turkey’s legitimate security concerns about the Syrian Kurdish fighters, but warned that the offensive could “jeopardize” progress made against the Islamic State terror group.
Stoltenberg spoke at a news conference in Istanbul with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Cavusoglu said Turkey expects solidarity from NATO against the threats it faces.
Turkey has reported its first military fatality three days into its incursion into Syria. The defense ministry said three other soldiers were wounded, without giving any details. Civilian casualties are also reported, but the numbers are hard to pin down and confirm.
Explosions were reported in the northern Syrian border towns of Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad Friday as the Turkish military offensive continued.
The International Rescue Committee says 64,000 people have already been displaced and hundreds of thousands of other people could soon become homeless. Both sides report civilian deaths and injuries as mortars are lobbed over the border into Turkey.
“Turkish planes have been striking from the air,” said Diyar Ahmed, a spokesperson for Syria’s Kurdish-led autonomous government in the northeast in a statement on Thursday. “At the same time, their heavy weapons haven’t stopped, they aren’t stopping in firing on the village, and civilians have been both wounded and lost their lives.”
Turkey says it is fighting to establish a “safe zone” between its borders and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed military group Turkey sees as a terrorist organization.
U.S.-backed, that is, until President Donald Trump announced a sudden withdrawal of forces in northeastern Syria Monday, sparking chaos in the region.
The U.S. originally brokered a version of Turkey’s safe zone in August and agreed to patrol it with Turkish troops, effectively separating Turkey from the Syrian Democratic Forces, which Turkey sees as the same as the PKK, a militant group that has been conducting attacks in Turkey for decades. The PKK has also been designated as a terrorist group by the European Union, the U.S. and other countries.
With the U.S. departing, Turkey announced that it could not “wait a minute longer” to begin what it described as counter-terrorism operations. The message came in a tweet by Fahrettin Altun, Turkey’s communication’s director, on Monday.
Syrian Democratic Forces troops moved north to the border areas, leaving cities, camps and prisons more vulnerable to IS attacks. Trump came under fire from supporters and detractors alike for abandoning the Kurdish allies against IS in Syria, who lost more than 10,000 soldiers fighting the militant group.
The Turkish government says millions of refugees now in Turkey will be settled in the safe zone, while Kurdish leaders say only refugees originally from that part of Syria will be allowed to return, if they control the area.
Islamic State resurgence
Since Trump first announced plans to withdraw from Syria last year, experts have warned that a U.S. departure could empower Islamic State militants. And while militants hold no geographic territory, they still conduct frequent attacks in areas controlled by the SDF.
In the city of Raqqa, once the IS “capital,” locals say IS could return any time if security forces are not vigilant. “This city is full of militants,” says Futha, a mother of four, by the banks of the Euphrates River in August. “There are also many empty houses of IS fighters who will come back when they have the chance.”
Others by the river say they don’t want to talk about IS, for fear militants will come back and find out.
After Turkey announced its military plans, the SDF pulled troops from Raqqa and other cities, and reduced security around the IS prisons and camps that hold tens of thousands of fighters and their families. Since then, there have been reports of as many as three suicide bombs in Raqqa.
And while Trump says Turkey will take responsibility for the IS prisoners, it is not clear how, given they are currently held by the SDF considerably south of the border, according to the International Crisis Group. The conflict, the ICG says, may also draw in other countries and the Syrian Army, once again intensifying the country’s civil war.
“In any scenario, opportunities for ISIS to revive and spread its influence will multiply in proportion to the increase in violence and disorder,” reads an ICG statement on Thursday that used an alternate designation for Islamic State.