ANKARA/BEIRUT- Turkish-backed Syrian rebels advanced into Ras al Ain in Syria’s northeast on Saturday but it was unclear how far they had gone with Turkey saying the town center had been taken while Kurdish-led forces denied this and said they were counter-attacking.
The battle for Ras al Ain came 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.
Washington said Turkey’s incursion was causing “great harm” in relations with its NATO ally.
The Turkish assault has raised alarm about its humanitarian fall-out. The regional Kurdish-led administration in Syria’s northeast said nearly 200,000 people had been displaced as a result, while the U.N. World Food Programme put the figure at more than 100,000 in the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al Ain.
Turkey began its onslaught against the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as a terrorist group, after U.S. President Donald Trump spoke by phone on Sunday with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and withdrew some U.S. troops backing Kurdish forces.
“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 subsequently stated on Twitter that Ras al Ain 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, swiftly denied losing the center of Ras al Ain.
Marvan Qamishlo, an SDF military media official, said Turkish-backed forces had entered the town’s industrial district following hours of heavy Turkish shelling that had forced the SDF into a “tactical retreat” from that area.
“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 Turkish border.
In response, the senior Turkish official said fighting was going on in “two small areas” of Ras al Ain but added that “nearly all” YPG forces had fled to the south. Turkish artillery continued to bombard parts of the town, a Reuters reporter said.
Turkish forces had overnight stepped up their bombardment of Ras al Ain in their incursion, after U.S. troops in the vicinity came under artillery fire from Turkish positions.
TURKEY SEEKS “SAFE ZONE”
Erdogan has dismissed the mounting international criticism of the operation and said on Friday evening that Turkey “will not stop it, no matter what anyone says”.
Turkey aims to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria to resettle many of the 3.6 million Syrian war refugees it has been hosting. Erdogan threatened to send them to Europe if the EU did not back his assault, prompting a furious response from the bloc amid fears the fighting could cause a humanitarian disaster.
On Saturday morning, thick plumes of smoke rose around Ras al Ain, one of two Syrian border towns targeted in the offensive, as Turkish artillery pounded the area. Intense gunfire also resounded within Ras al Ain in the early hours, while warplanes could be heard flying overhead.
It was quieter at Tel Abyad, the operation’s other main target some 120 km (75 miles) to the west, with only occasional shelling heard in the area, a Reuters reporter said.
The Turkish-backed SDF said earlier they had cut a road linking Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad and had captured 18 villages since the operation began.
U.S. TROOPS UNDER FIRE
On Friday, the Pentagon said U.S. troops came under artillery fire from Turkish emplacements though none of its soldiers were wounded near the Syrian border town of Kobani, 60 km (37 miles) west of the main area of conflict.
Turkey’s Defence Ministry said its forces did not shoot back at the U.S. base and took all precautions to prevent any harm to it while it was responding to YPG fire from a nearby area.
“U.S. and coalition soldiers were definitely not hit. Indeed the necessary coordination is being carried out by our headquarters and the Americans,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar was quoted as saying on Saturday.
Seventy-four Kurdish-led fighters, 49 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels and 30 civilians have been killed in the fighting, according to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor.
Turkey’s Defence Ministry said 415 YPG militants had been “neutralized” since the operation began, a term that commonly means killed.
Overnight a car bomb exploded outside the wall of the prison in Hasaka in northeast Syria, causing serious damage but no casualties, a statement from security forces in the region said. It did not say if any Islamic State prisoners had escaped.
The SDF’s Qamishlo said the attack was carried out by Islamic State (IS) sleeper cells.
The SDF holds most of the northern Syrian territory that once made up Islamic State’s “caliphate” in the country, and has been keeping thousands of fighters from the jihadist group in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.
The SDF says the Turkish assault could allow the jihadist group to re-emerge. In its first big attack since the assault began, IS claimed responsibility for a deadly car bomb in Qamishli, the largest city in the Kurdish-held area, even as the city came under Turkish shelling.
Five IS militants fled a jail there, and foreign women from the group being held in a camp torched tents and attacked guards with sticks and stones, the SDF said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has told his Turkish counterpart they should de-escalate the conflict before the situation becomes “irreparable”.
European Council President Donald Tusk warned it may lead to a “humanitarian catastrophe”.
Erdogan’s spokesman rebuffed the criticism on Saturday, saying “Turkey’s fight is against terrorists, not Kurds or civilians”. The spokesman told those who condemn Turkey that thousands of civilians were killed in previous U.S.-led coalition operations in Syria’s Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul.
“Blackmail and threats will never deter Turkey from its just cause,” Ibrahim Kalin wrote on Twitter. “God willing victory will be ours.”
U.S. lawmakers introduced more legislation on Friday seeking stiff sanctions on Turkey over the offensive, underscoring unhappiness from both Democrats and President Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress over his Syria policy.
U.S. military officials denied lawmakers’ accusations that the administration abandoned U.S. allies. Ankara says it aims to defeat the YPG, which it sees as an enemy for its links to Kurdish militants who have waged an insurgency in Turkey since 1984.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Trump had authorized the drafting of “very significant” new sanctions against Turkey, a NATO ally. Washington was not activating the curbs now but would do so if necessary, Mnuchin said.