Turkish-backed Syrian rebels advanced into Ras al Ain in northeast Syria on Saturday but it was unclear how far, with Turkey saying the town center had been taken and Kurdish-led forces denying this and saying they were counter-attacking.
Turkey Advances in Northeast Syria Despite US, EU Criticism
The battle for Ras al Ain raged as Turkey pursued a four-day-old, cross-border offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia despite an outcry from the United States and European Union and warnings of possible sanctions unless Ankara desisted.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration said Turkey’s incursion was causing “great harm” in relations with its NATO ally. The head of the Arab League denounced the offensive and Germany said it was banning arms exports to Turkey, a NATO ally.
The Turkish assault has raised international alarm over its mass displacement of civilians and the risk it could trigger a revival of an Islamic State insurgency in Syria, with a heightened possibility of IS militants escaping Kurdish prisons.
The Kurdish-led administration in Syria’s northeast said nearly 200,000 people had been uprooted so far by the fighting, while the U.N. World Food Programme put the figure at more than 100,000 in the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain.
Turkey’s stated broader objective is to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria to resettle many of the 3.6 million Syrian war refugees it has been hosting. Erdogan has threatened to send them to Europe if the EU did not back his assault.
Ankara began its onslaught against the YPG militia, which it says is a terrorist group backing Kurdish insurgents in Turkey, after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew some U.S. troops who had been backing Kurdish forces in the fight against IS.
“The (Syrian rebel) National Army took control of (Ras al Ain) town center this morning,” a senior Turkish security official said. “Inspections are being conducted in residential areas. Mine and booby trap searches are being carried out.”
Turkey’s Defence Ministry said around midday that the Turkish-backed rebel Syrian National Army had been brought under control, with officials posting photos showing deserted streets and Syrian rebels standing on Kurdish militia flags.
But the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in which the YPG comprises the main fighting element, denied losing the center of Ras al Ain. Marvan Qamishlo, an SDF spokesman, said his side had only carried out a “tactical retreat” in response to hours of heavy Turkish bombardment.
“Now the SDF’s attack has started and there are very fierce clashes now,” he told Reuters. “The clashes are continuing in the industrial district,” he said, saying this was the part of Ras al Ain closest to the border.
In response, the senior Turkish official said “nearly all” YPG forces had fled south from Ras al Ain. Turkish artillery continued to shell parts of the town, a Reuters reporter said.
The National Army’s spokesman said later in the day Turkish-backed forces had seized some districts of Ras al Ain including its industrial area while some units had pushed deeper into the town, but fighting continued in the area.