Commanders of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which led the fight against ISIS, say ‘thousands of innocent civilians’ will die if the invasion goes ahead.
Faced with an onslaught by the Turkish army and Turkish-backed Syrian National Army rebel group which was due to begin Wednesday, the SDF begged world leaders for support to avoid the bloodshed.
Meanwhile Russia warned that US policies in Syria have the potential to ‘ignite’ the whole region, which has already been wracked by years of bloody war.
‘The border areas of northeast Syria are on the edge of a possible humanitarian catastrophe,’ the General Command of the SDF said in a statement.
‘All indications, field information and military build-up on the Turkish side of the border indicate that our border areas will be attacked by Turkey in cooperation with Syrian opposition tied to Turkey.
‘This attack will spill the blood of thousands of innocent civilians because our border areas are overcrowded.
‘Accordingly we call on the international community and all countries of the international coalition who fought together and triumphed together over the so-called ISIS Caliphate to carry out their responsibilities and avoid a possible impending humanitarian disaster.’
Many Syrians displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country have fled to the Aleppo region in the hopes of seeking shelter there.
According to data collected by Global Shelter Cluster, which is leading relief efforts in Syria, there are currently some 600,000 people receiving aid in the Aleppo region – of which 140,000 are almost entirely reliant on aid for survival.
In the event of an invasion of northern Syria by Turkey, Aleppo is where the majority of the initial fighting would take place.
Turkey has announced plans to create a ‘peace corridor’ along its border with Syria by wiping out ‘terrorists’ – by which it means the SDF.
Ankara says this will allow for the return of Syrian refugees in Turkey, and create greater regional stability.
However, observers warn fresh conflict along the border will destabilise the region and likely lead to an ISIS resurgence as the SDF diverts forces to fight the Turks.
Overnight the SDF reported three suicide bomb attacks in Raqqa, the defacto capital of ISIS’s self-declared Caliphate by sleeper cells which had activated in the city.
Early on Wednesday the group tweeted: ‘Daesh takes advantage of Imminent Turkish invasion.
‘Three ISIS suicide bombings on our military positions in Raqqa, clashes still ongoing.’
Daesh is a derogatory Arabic term for ISIS.
Trump has faced a fierce political backlash after he agreed to withdraw US troops from Syria during a routine phone call with President Erdogan on Sunday.
Efforts are now underway in Congress to block the troop withdrawal including from Senate Republicans led by Lindsay Graham.
Tweeting at Turkey’s leadership on Tuesday night, he said: ‘You do NOT have a green light to enter into northern Syria.
‘There is massive bipartisan opposition in Congress, which you should see as a red line you should not cross.’
Of particular concern are prison camps holding some 15,000 ISIS fighters that would fall into Turkey’s hands if it seizes border areas that the SDF currently controls, including the notorious Al-Hawl camp.
Within these camps are 2,500 foreign ISIS jihadis, largely from Europe, which Turkey would then become responsible for detaining.
There are fears that this would give Ankara leverage over European leaders and security on the continent, since Turkey is one of the primary routes for ISIS fighters returning to Europe.
Trump has attempted to defend his position by saying that he will crash the Turkish economy in the event of any ‘unforced or unnecessary fighting’.
He also denied abandoning the Kurds, pointing out that the country has a large Kurdish population – including a separatist which the government has been fighting against for decades.
Turkey wants to create what it calls a ‘safe zone’ in a stretch of territory along its southern border with Syria that is currently controlled by Syrian Kurdish fighters, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
Turkey considers the YPG as terrorists affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a 35-year-long battle against the Turkish state. Ankara also views the YPG-controlled zone as an ‘existential threat.’
Erdogan has demanded a ‘safe zone’ that is 20 miles deep and stretches more than 300 miles toward the Iraqi border.
He initially had hoped to do it in collaboration with the United States but grew frustrated with what he considered to be delaying tactics by the U.S.
Once secured, Turkey wants to resettle the area with 2 million Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey due to the conflict in their home country.
How such a massive resettlement would be carried out is unclear. Human rights groups have warned that any escalation of fighting in the area could displace hundreds of thousands more people.
Erdogan has spoken of plans to build towns, villages, hospitals and schools but also says Turkey, which has already spent some $40 billion on the refugees, cannot afford to do it alone.
He has said he will convene a donors conference to help meet the cost and has called on European nations to share the burden, warning that Turkey could be forced to open the ‘gates’ for an influx of migrants to Western nations.
Turkey has carried out two previous incursions into northern Syria in recent years with the help of Syrian rebels.
In the first offensive in 2016, Turkey pushed back Islamic State group militants west of the Euphrates River.
In the second operation last year, Turkey captured the Syrian-Kurdish controlled enclave of Afrin.
Those regions are currently administered by Turkish-backed opposition groups who run them as virtual Turkish-administered towns.
Analysts say this operation would likely be more complicated.
Unwilling to let go of an area they wrested from the Islamic State group, the battle-hardened Kurdish fighters – trained and equipped by the U.S. – have vowed to fight the Turks until the end.
‘It’s a huge area for the Turkish military to go into and clearly there will be resistance on the part of the (Syrian Kurdish forces),’ said Bulent Aliriza, of the director of the Turkey Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Aliriza suggested the operation may be a limited one that does not stretch all the way to the Iraqi border.
‘That’s what we are going to look at first. How deep and how broad is it, whether it’s all the way across from the Iraqi border to the Euphrates, or just limited to two or three penetration points,’ he said.
Critics of Trump’s decision fear a Turkish operation could have destabilizing consequences for the region, while both Democrats and Republicans have warned that a Turkish attack could lead to a massacre of the Kurds, who are holding thousands of captured IS fighters and their families.
One of the big question marks surrounding Turkey’s plans is whether fighting the Syrian Kurdish forces would allow IS to make a comeback.
Turkey insists that the global battle against the militants won’t suffer, and points to its 2016 incursion, which drove away IS from another border region.
But Kurdish officials have warned that they would have to divert their forces away from guarding IS prisoners in case of a Turkish assault.
The White House has said Turkey will take over responsibility for the imprisoned fighters, but it is unclear how that would happen, if it all.
Erdogan says Turkey and the United States are working separately on plans to repatriate foreign fighters held in Kurdish prisons.