Turkey launches military offensive in Syria
It is absolute gridlock here in northern Syria, near the border with Turkey, as people try to flee to safety with little idea of what the Turkish military has in store for them.
For civilians living in this Kurdish stronghold, it's their worst nightmare playing out before their eyes.
There was a hope up until the last minute that perhaps the US would stand in support of its Kurdish allies and prevent this incursion from happening.
But now there is widespread fear of what Turkey -- which views the YPG-controlled zone as an existential threat -- will do next.
So far, Turkish airstrikes have largely hit Kurdish military targets, but once you have mortars flying, there is always a potential for civilian casualties. We witnessed what appeared to be six different strikes and a fire at what locals told us was a cotton factory.
Chaotic scenes are unfolding now, with roads choked with hundreds of fleeing families, motorcycles piled with five to six people, mattresses strapped to cars. Thick black smoke can be seen rising from a number of different areas.
People don’t know where they will go, where they will sleep tonight, or what they can expect from this Turkish operation.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a key US partner in the fight against ISIS, have suspended their operations countering the militant group, according to a US official.
The SDF said it had halted counter-ISIS operations to focus on the Turkish offensive.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted Wednesday that the forces would "clash against the Turks to stop them from crossing the border.
"We will use all our possibilities against Turkish aggression," Bali said.
Turkey's military offensive comes just days after the Trump administration announced it was pulling US troops back from the border area. Here's tick tock of events that led up to the operation:
- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Turkey was ready to launch a long-planned "ground and air operation" aimed at clearing US-backed Kurdish forces -- a key ally of the US in the fight against ISIS -- away from its border.
- US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that "we've made clear that this conflict shouldn't be militarized." However, a US official familiar with operations in Syria told CNN that it was "very likely" Turkey would try something soon.
- Following a phone call between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Erdogan, the White House said that Turkey would soon begin its offensive in northern Syria -- and that "US forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial 'caliphate,' will no longer be in the immediate area."
- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed that US troops had begun pulling back from some areas in northeast Syria.
- Trump's decision to allow Erdogan to move forward with the operation was criticized by people across the political spectrum for effectively "abandoning" Kurdish allies. A Pentagon spokesperson said Monday that the Department of Defense did not endorse the planned operation.
- Erdogan announced the launch of a military offensive into northeastern Syria. Eyewitnesses and CNN teams have reported shelling and airstrikes on the Turkey-Syria border.
Manbij Military Council spokesman, Shervan Derwish, has been tweeting videos and photos from northern Syria, capturing scenes of families fleeing bombardment.
"This world, which left our people in front of this barbaric attack, were we wrong when we fought ISIS for it?" he said in a post on Twitter.
Now that Turkey has launched its offensive in northern Syria to clear the area of US-backed Kurdish forces, the key question is: just how extensive will the operation be?
Could it simply be symbolic, a moment to capitalize on the green light Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan feels he has from Washington? Or will we see a military intervention that unfolds gradually over the next weeks and months?
From what CNN teams have seen on the border so far, it feels like a seismic moment.
A barrage of airstrikes and artillery fire could be heard volleyed into northern Syria Wednesday afternoon, perhaps a message to Kurdish fighters to allow Turkish convoys to proceed across the border.
This swathe of countryside is effectively the same area that incubated ISIS. And, without the US-backed Kurdish forces installed here, the risk of ISIS 2.0 is very real.
There will be a vacuum where the militants could become assets in play for various warring sides.
Turkey has said it would take the ISIS fighters currently being guarded in jails by the Kurds into their custody, but that is a massive task to undertake while they're also carrying out this operation.
Almost all of the woes and ills we've seen in the last five to 10 years in the Middle East can somehow traced back to this Syrian border -- now it seems we are seeing that happen again.
Hundreds of civilians in northern Syria have fled areas on the border with Turkey within the last 30 minutes, two YPG fighters and witnesses tell CNN.
Turkey used heavy artillery and conducted airstrikes on Ras Al-Ain in northwest Al-Hasakah country in Syria, the fighters said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has asked his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to "carefully weigh the situation" in Syria, so as not to "harm the overall efforts to resolve" the crisis, according to a statement released by the Kremlin.
In the statement, the Kremlin also underlined "the importance of ensuring the unity and territorial integrity of Syria and respect for its sovereignty was noted on both sides."
Since Russia's military intervention in Syria's war began in 2015, Russian forces have helped returned control of large swathes of previously rebel-held areas of the country to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Trump's decision to give Turkey a green light to carry out a military offensive against US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria is "shameful," retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling told CNN Wednesday.
"Today, anything is possible when these sorts of authoritarian governments have been given a green light by the US," Hertling said, adding that Turkey had been handed "free rein" in Syria to quash the Kurds.
The role of the Kurds in the US-backed coalition fighting against ISIS has helped to protect them from Turkey, according to Hertling, who said that, if they are cleared from the area, it will contribute to ISIS 2.0.
Before the offensive was announced on Wednesday afternoon, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (also known as the Kurdish Administration in Northeastern Syria) called up all civilians for a three day “general mobilization” to defend the region against Turkey's military offensive.
In a statement posted on its Facebook account Wednesday, the Kurdish administration asked people to head towards the Turkish boarder to resist the operation.
“We call upon all our departments, institutions and people with all its components to go to the border region adjacent to Turkey to do their moral duty and to show resistance in these delicate historical moments," the statement said.
The group also wrote that it will hold the United Nations, America, the European Union and Russia responsible "for any humanitarian catastrophe inflicted on our people in northern and eastern Syria."