Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said Turkish warplanes had carried out airstrikes sparking “huge panic” among people on the ground. Witnesses reported hearing the sound of planes overhead and said smoke could be seen rising from buildings in the border town. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed the military operation was now underway in a tweet.
The Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army, will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly
Earlier a defence official said a small forward group of soldiers had entered Syria at two points along the border close to the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain in preparation for the full-scale offensive.
Soldiers with heavy equipment have removed concrete sections of the border and howitzers have been positioned behind earth embankments on the Turkish side of the border near the town of Akcakale.
Multiple launch rocket systems mounted on two trucks were deployed behind earth embankments near Suruc 40 miles to the west.
Turkish tanks roll towards the Syrian border
Artillery has also been stationed in the area and troop movements have been reported at a nearby military camp.
Turkey said its military had struck the Syrian-Iraqi border to prevent Kurdish forces using the route to reinforce the region, though details of the strikes were hazy.
Mr Erdogan tweeted this afternoon: “Turkish Armed Forces together with the Syrian National Army against PKK/YPG and Deash terrorist organizations in northern Syria #BarışPınarıHarekatı has started.
“Our aim is to destroy the terror corridor which is trying to be established on our southern border and to bring peace and peace to the region.”
Turkish troops are preparing to launch a major offensive in northern Syria
Mustafa Bali of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the Turkish military build-up, together with information about further mobilisation of Turkey-backed Syrian rebels, indicated “an attack is imminent”.
The Turkish army has been poised to cross into war-ravaged Syria since the surprise withdrawal of US troops last weekend.
President Erdogan’s aide Fahrettin Altun said: “The Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army, will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly.
“Turkey has no ambition in northeastern Syria except to neutralise a long-standing threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate the local population from the yoke of armed thugs.“
Turkish troops have been deployed to the Syrian border
Turkey said it intends to create a “safe zone” in order to return millions of refugees to Syrian soil but the plan has alarmed some Western allies as much as the risks posed by the military operation itself.
For Ankara, which views Kurdish YPG fighters as terrorists because of their links to militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey, an influx of non-Kurdish Syrians would help it secure a buffer against its main security threat.
The US withdrawal from the area will leave Kurdish-led forces long allied to Washington vulnerable to attack by the Turkish Armed Forces.
Turkish tanks prepare to invade northern Syria
Mr Erdogan said the US troop withdrawal began soon after a phone call he had with Donald Trump.
US Defence Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said: “Unfortunately, Turkey has chosen to act unilaterally.
“As a result we have moved the US forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety.”
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Donald Trump’s abrupt policy change has been widely criticised in Washington as a betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies who spearheaded the ground the bloody and hard-fought ground campaign against ISIS.
The decision has rattled allies, including France, one of Washington’s main partners in the US-led coalition fighting ISIS.
Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest foreign ally, said it was not told in advance by Washington or Turkey about any agreements to pull US troops.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has called on Turkey to show restraint and avoid military action in northern Syria. President Rouhani spoke as Iranian Army Ground Forces began unannounced military drills near the Turkish border.
Turkish troops on patrol near the Syrian border
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged all parties in northeast Syria to exercise maximum restraint and protect civilians.
Kurdish-led forces have denounced the US policy shift as a “stab in the back”.
Mr Trump denied cutting the Kurdish forces adrift and threatened to “totally destroy” Turkey’s economy if it acted “off limits” in Syria.