Erdogan warns Syria offensive will continue
Turkey will continue its offensive into northeast Syria more rapidly than before if an agreement with the US to pause the operation and allow the withdrawal of Kurdish forces is not fully implemented, President Tayyip Erdogan says.
Erdogan said overnight it was not a problem for Turkey if Syrian government forces, backed by Russia, were to enter areas cleared of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, adding that Ankara had no intention to stay in areas under its control in northern Syria.
He also said he had informed US President Donald Trump about the offensive in a phone call on October 6, three days before the operation started.
He added that "what is necessary will be done when the time is right" about a letter from Trump in which the US president told Erdogan to not be a "fool" and "tough guy".
It comes after the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria accused Turkey on Friday of violating the US-brokered cease-fire that went into effect on Thursday night, as fighters from both sides clashed in and around a border town that has been one of the fiercest fronts in the Turkish invasion.
The town of Ras al-Ayn was emerging as an immediate test for the five-day cease-fire agreed on by Washington and Ankara. Before the deal's announcement, Turkish-backed forces had encircled the town and were battling fierce resistance from Kurdish fighters inside.
The Syrian Kurds raised further uncertainty over a cease-fire deal that already was vague on key points and left significant questions unanswered. The self-rule administration said some provisions of the cease-fire deal "need further discussion with the United States."
It did not specify which provisions, but the Kurds have not publicly committed to a central term of the deal — a pullout of their fighters from the border region. A spokesman for the Kurdish-led fighters said Friday they were not withdrawing from Ras al-Ayn because Turkish forces are still besieging and shelling it.
Criticism of the cease-fire deal — which Trump called "a great day for civilisation" — mounted.
EU Council President Donald Tusk said it was "not a cease-fire, it is a demand for the capitulation of the Kurds" and called on Turkey to immediately halt its operation in northeast Syria. French President Emmanuel Macron called the Turkish operation "madness."
Turkish shelling hit in and around Ras al-Ayn on Friday morning, raising columns of smoke, seen by an Associated Press journalist in Ceylanpinar on the Turkish side of the border, but none was seen after 10.30am, and only sporadic gunfire was heard from inside the town.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Rojava Information Center said fighting continued into the afternoon as Turkish-backed Syrian fighters clashed with Kurdish forces in villages on the outskirts of Ras al-Ayn. The Kurdish-led force said five of its fighters were killed and a number of civilians wounded in a Turkish airstrike on one of the villages.
Other activists reported a new exodus of civilians from the villages. Gun battles and shelling continued around a hospital in the centre of Ras al-Ayn, and those injured inside could not be evacuated, said Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The Kurdish Red Crescent said it was unable to enter the town to evacuate the wounded because of fighting.
Kurdish fighters said the fighting quieted around 4pm.
In its statement, the Kurdish-led administration said Turkey "has not adhered with the cease-fire until now in some areas," particularly in Ras al-Ayn.
Erdogan denied any fighting took place Friday and said Kurdish fighters had begun withdrawing, a claim the Kurds denied.
A senior US official said they were awaiting confirmation on the reported fighting. The official said it takes time for information to filter down to field units especially for forces without strong command and control. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
The cease-fire agreement — reached after hours of negotiations in Turkey's capital between Erdogan and US Vice President Mike Pence — requires the Kurdish fighters to vacate a swath of territory in Syria along the Turkish border. That arrangement would largely solidify the position Turkey has gained after days of fighting. The Turks and the Kurds appear to disagree on the size of the area covered by the cease-fire. Turkey calls it a "pause" not a cease-fire.
It remains unclear if the Kurdish-led force was on board with pulling back even if a pause in fighting firmly takes hold.
Pence said the US was already coordinating with it on a withdrawal. But American sway with the group has diminished after Trump turned his back on it by withdrawing US soldiers from northeast Syria, opening the way for Turkey to launch its invasion 10 days ago.
The Kurdish-led force's commander, Mazloum Abdi, said Thursday night that it would abide by the cease-fire and "do our best to make it successful." He did not mention any withdrawal.