As Turkey presses ahead, strategic city becomes a potential flashpoint between its allied forces and the Syrian army.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the military action aims to remove the Kurdish-led forces from the border area and create a “safe zone” to which millions of Syrian refugees can be returned.
The move came after the United States announced it was withdrawing its troops from the area, leaving the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), its main ally in the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group, without US military support.
Here are the latest updates:
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Jerusalem and Brussels after his visit to Turkey on Thursday with Vice President Mike Pence, the State Department said on Wednesday.
Pompeo will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Friday and then travel later that day to Brussels for a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the statement said.
Pence and Pompeo are going to Turkey’s capital Ankara to urge Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to stop his invasion of Syria.
On the day Turkey launched its offensive in northeast Syria, Trump wrote to Erdogan saying the Turkish president would be remembered as a “devil” if he moved ahead with the military action.
Trump started his October 9 letter suggesting they could “work out a good deal”.
“You don’t want to be responsible for the slaughtering of thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy,” he wrote.
“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” he said, adding that the SDF’s commander was willing to negotiate.
Trump met members of Congress at the White House on Wednesday to discuss Turkey and Syria.
Democrats say Trump insulted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling her a “third-rate politician.” Democratic leaders left shortly afterwards.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is trying to pin the blame on Pelosi, saying she stormed out of the meeting.
Read more here.
Senate Republicans are sticking up for the US-allied Syrian Kurds after Trump defended his pullout of US troops on Wednesday.
GOP Leader Mitch McConnell called the partnership “a terrific alliance” that set the Islamic State group back and says he is “sorry we are where we are.”
Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “has not been a reliable ally. The Kurds have been a reliable ally.”
Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa added: “We really have left behind and abandoned a strategic partner, the Kurds, who stood by our men and women in uniform in the fight” to defeat IS.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said the Turkish leader will travel to Sochi, Russia for talks over Turkey’s military offensive northeast Syria on October 22.
Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Erdogan during a call between the two leaders on Tuesday, amid pressure on Turkey to halt its incursion.
Russia moved quickly to fill the void left by the US troops’ withdrawal from northern Syria, deploying its military to act as a buffer as Syrian government forces moved north under a deal with the Syrian Kurdish forces.
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander Mazloum Abdi, in an interview Kurdish-language Ronahi TV, said US President Donald Trump did not protests an unlikely deal cut between Kurdish forces and the Syrian government to protect against a Turkish offensive.
Abdi, who said he had a phone call with Trump, also said that US adversary Russia would guarantee the SDF agreement with Damascus.
He added that the deal would pave the way for a political solution, to be worked out later with the Syrian government, that could guarantee Kurdish rights in Syria.
Democrats and Republicans approved the non-binding resolution condemning Trump’s decision by a 354-60 vote.
The bipartisan rebuke expressed opposition to the troop pullback and says Turkey should cease its military action in Syria. The measure also says the White House should present a plan for an “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State group.
Republicans in the House plan to soon introduce legislation that will impose sanctions on NATO ally Turkey over its military operation.
Read more here.
Along with leaving Raqqa and Tabqah, the US-led coalition said its forces had also left the Lafarge cement factory as part of Washington’s decision to withdraw troops from northeast Syria.
“Coalition forces continue a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria. On October 16, we vacated the Lafarge Cement Factory, Raqqa, and Tabqah,” coalition spokesman Colonel Myles B. Caggins said on Twitter.
#Coalition forces continue a deliberate withdrawal from northeast #Syria. On Oct. 16, we vacated the Lafarge Cement Factory, Raqqa, and Tabqah. //
تواصل قوات التحالف الإنسحاب المُخطّط له من شمال شرق سوريا. في 16 تشرين الأول ، قُمنا بإخلاء مصنع لافارج للأسمنت والرقة والطبقة
— OIR Spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto (@OIRSpox) October 16, 2019
Speaking at the White House, Trump said the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long armed campaign against Ankara, were “probably” a bigger “terrorist threat” than ISIL.
The US president also further defended his decision to withdraw troops and denied giving Ankara the “green light” to begin its military campaign.
“Turkey has gone into Syria. If Turkey goes into Syria, that’s between Turkey and Syria – it’s not between Turkey and the United States, like a lot of stupid people would like you to believe,” he said.
The UN Security Council adopted a unanimous statement warning of the risk of a “dispersion” of ISIL fighters in Syria’s northeastern region.
The 15-member body agreed on the brief statement after meeting for the second time behind closed doors since the start of the Turkish operation. The statement made no reference to Turkey’s actions.
The council “expressed deep concern over the risk of the dispersion of terrorists from UN-designated groups, including ISIL, and are also very concerned over the risk of a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a resident told the Associated Press news agency that Syrian troops had entered the northern town, where Kurdish and US forces first defeated Islamic State group militants together 4 years ago.
The move comes as part of a deal Kurds struck with the Syrian government for protection from Turkey following the US troop withdrawal from the region.
Saleh focused on ways of preventing Islamic militants from taking advantage of the chaos to rise again during the meeting with David Schenker, US, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.
A statement by Saleh’s office said the two discussed ways of supporting Iraq to preserve its security “amid the current challenges”.
Turkey’s Halkbank said that the US’ charges against it amount to an escalation of Washington’s sanctions on Ankara over its military action in Syria, while Erdogan called them an “unlawful, ugly” step.
Read more here.
Trump disparaged the Kurds, saying the US allies in the war against ISIL in Syria “are not angels”.
Trump, who has come under intense criticism for abandoning the Kurds in the face of a Turkish offensive in northern Syria, told reporters at the White House that “The Kurds are very well protected”.
Trump again tried to distance himself and the US from the Syria crisis, telling reporters asking about Turkey attacking into Syria, ‘It’s not our problem.”
As Turkey’s operation in northeastern Syria entered its second week, heavy battles continued on the ground, said Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from the Turkish border town of Akcakale.
[There is a] fierce combat in Ras al-Ain, with the SDF mounting fierce defence using tunnels and trenches,” she said. “Ras al-Ain may be a small border town but it is key in Turkey’s plan to create to create a ‘safe zone’ along the border east of the Euphrates River.”
At the same time, Khodr noted how Moscow, a main military ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was filling the void left by the departure of US troops from the area.
“Russia is making it clear who is calling the shots. They have deployed their military police on front lines, laying claim to a number of areas – Manbij, for example, a key town in the northern countryside of Aleppo, which Turkey wanted to take control of but now it’s no longer able to advance towards it because of the deployment of Russian troops.”
Republicans in the US House of Representatives plan to introduce legislation that will impose sanctions on NATO ally Turkey over its military operation, according to Representative Liz Cheney.
The measure has a good chance of passing, even though Republicans do not control the chamber.
In the Republican-led Senate, top Democrat Chuck Schumer called for the House to quickly adopt the resolution and for his chamber to then immediately take it up.
Read more here.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Ceylanpinar on the Turkey-Syria border, said clashes in the nearby town of Ras al-Ain, a major focus of the Turkish operation, were “intense”.
“The situation is incredibly tense,” he said, as two columns of black smoke billowed in the distance behind him. “We’ve seen artillery fire and heard a lot of heavy gunfire all day,” Stratford added.
“The Turkish military says it has made gains southwest of the city but a lot of the action has been to the east.”
Stratford also said there were unconfirmed reports of clashes around the flashpoint city of Manbij, some 120km (75 miles) further west.
“We also understand that the Syrian army is based in positions around 30km (19 miles) from the border in various towns – that’s significant because that is the depth Turkey wants to set up the ‘safe zone’,” Stratford added.
Three civilians were wounded in the province of Sirnak in southeastern Turkey after an artillery attack by Kurdish fighters from the Syrian side of the border, according to state-run Anadolu Agency.
The wounded citizens were hospitalised, the agency said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he and US Vice President Mike Pence expect to meet Erdogan when they travel to Turkey this week.
In an interview on Fox Business Network, Pompeo said the goal of the US delegation’s visit was to find a resolution to the situation in Syria, not break the Washington-Ankara relationship.
Despite an earlier statement by Erdogan on Wednesday that he would not meet visiting US Vice President Mike Pence, his office said the meeting would go ahead after all.
“Earlier today, the President told @SkyNews that he won’t receive a US delegation that is visiting Ankara today. He does plan to meet the US delegation led by @VP (Pence),” Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director, wrote on Twitter.
Earlier today, the President told @SkyNews that he won’t receive a U.S. delegation that is visiting Ankara today.
— Fahrettin Altun (@fahrettinaltun) October 16, 2019
Pence will travel to Turkey as scheduled even though Erdogan has said he will not meet with him, a spokeswoman for the US vice president said.
“The vice president is traveling to Turkey today,” spokeswoman Katie Waldman said.
The White House had hoped Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would meet Erdogan onThursday to ask for a ceasefire in Turkey’s assault on Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria.
Turkey will retaliate against US sanctions over Ankara’s military operation into northeast Syria, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, adding that all threats and sanctions against Turkey were unacceptable.
Speaking in parliament, Cavusoglu also said Turkey expected the US Congress to turn back from its “damaging approach”, and added that ties between Ankara and Washington were at a critical juncture.
He said he would convey this to a US delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence coming to Ankara.
Erdogan described a US indictment against Turkey’s state-run Halkbank as “unlawful” and “ugly”.
“This is just another sign of how emotional these issues have become. One would think that this business was over. Now they have taken an unlawful, ugly step by reopening this (case),” Erdogan told reporters in parliament, according to the Anadolu Agency.
The indictment raises tensions between the NATO allies after Washington already said it would impose some sanctions on Ankara over its incursion in Syria.
Erdogan said he would not meet a US delegation visiting Ankara to discuss Turkey’s military operation in Syria.
“I am standing tall. I will not meet with them,” he told Sky News.
“They will meet with their counterparts. I will speak when Trump comes,” he said.
Erdogan said Turkey’s operation will end when Ankara completes its goal to form a “safe zone” from Syria’s Manbij to the border with Iraq.
“We informed the US, EU and Russia before the operation began that … we want this terrorist organisation to be removed from our borders,” he said at a weekly meeting of his ruling AK Party, referring to the YPG.
“When the zone from Manbij to Iraq [is cleared] when we could establish a safe zone, this operation will be over. But until that point, no power can stop us.”
Erdogan said he told US President Donald Trump Turkey would never declare a ceasefire in northeastern Syria, Turkish broadcaster NTV reported.
Speaking to reporters on a flight back from Baku, Erdogan said talks with Washington and Moscow on Syria’s Kobane and Manbij towns continued, stressing that Turkey did “not mind” Syrian troops being deployed in the area as long as Kurdish fighters leave.
“The regime entering Manjib is not very negative for me. Why? It’s their lands after all. But, what is important to me is that the terrorist organisation does not remain there,” Erdogan said, referring to the YPG.
“I told this to Mr Putin as well. If you are clearing Manbij of terrorist organisations, then go ahead, you or the regime can provide all the logistics. But if you are not going to do this, the people there are telling us to save them,” he added.
He also said he had told the US president that Turkey would “not negotiate with a terrorist organisation” in response to Trump’s mediation offer.
Separately, the Turkish presidency said Erdogan had told Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call that Turkey’s operation in northeastern Syria would contribute to counter-terrorism efforts, Syria’s territorial integrity and a political solution to the conflict.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he would soon go to Iraq to discuss a judicial framework to enable fighters being held in Syria to face trial.
Le Drian also told French broadcaster BFM TV that nine French women had escaped from a Kurdish-controlled camp following Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria.
Erdogan may visit Russia for talks by the end of October, the RIA news agency reported, citing Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
On Tuesday, Erdogan spoke over the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia, a close ally of Damascus, is a leading power broker in Syria.
Putin’s office said in a statement the two leaders emphasised “the need to prevent confrontations between units of the Turkish army and Syrian armed forces”. Putin also raised concerns in the call about “terrorists attempting to break free and infiltrate neighbouring countries” amid Ankara’s ongoing offensive.
Republican US Senator Lindsey Graham said he would introduce a bill on Thursday sanctioning Turkey for its offensive.
“I will be introducing sanctions against Turkey Thursday and I do appreciate what the (Trump) administration has done against Turkey through executive action but more to follow,” the Reuters news agency quoted Graham as telling reporters.
US military aircraft carried out a “show of force” in Syria after Turkish-backed fighters came in close proximity to the country’s forces, a US official told Reuters.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said US military aircraft were flown over the area after troops in northeastern Syria felt the Turkish-backed fighters were too close. The Turkish-backed fighters dispersed after the show of force, the official said.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to requests for comment, Reuters reported.