Kurdish fighters are seen near al-Ghanamya village at the Syria-Turkey border. Turkish officials said Wednesday its troops will soon cross into Syria for a major offensive. File Photo by Youssef Rabie Youssef/EPA-EFE
Oct. 9 (UPI) -- Turkey launched air and land operations against Kurdish forces in northern Syria on Wednesday, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Turkey's Ministry of Defense announced the Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian National Army launched a land operation east of the Euphrates River as part of the military operation.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted that sudden airstrikes earlier in the day caused a "huge panic" among the people in the region.
The Turkish military said its armed forces hit 181 targets in the airstrikes.
On the border, Turkish military forces amassed to cross into Syrian territory and target Kurdish fighters in the region, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office said Wednesday.
The Turkish government has been planning the offensive for weeks and received support from U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday when he said U.S. forces would not stand in the way.
"The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched Operation Peace Spring," Erdogan tweeted. "Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area."
"Turkey has no ambition in northeastern Syria except to neutralize a long-standing threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate the local population from the yoke of armed thugs," presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun wrote in a Washington Post column.
The Kurds released a statement calling on the international community to step in to avoid an "impending humanitarian disaster."
The controversial decision by Trump not to interfere and his pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria drew criticism from Middle East experts who see the moves as a betrayal toward the Kurds, which have previously been U.S. allies.
Trump said Wednesday he withdrew 50 U.S. troops from northern Syria ahead of the Turkish offensive.
"Fighting between various groups that has been going on for hundreds of years," he tweeted. "USA should never have been in Middle East. Moved our 50 soldiers out. Turkey MUST take over captured [IS] fighters that Europe refused to have returned. The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!"
In a statement Wednesday, Trump said the United States does not endorse the attack and made it clear to Turkey the operation is a bad idea.
"From the first day I entered the political arena I made it clear that I did not want to fight these endless, senseless wars -- especially those that don't benefit the United States," he said.
Turkey's Operation Peace Spring is planned for east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria against Kurdish fighters, whom Ankara considers terrorists. Turkish leaders say Kurdish groups pose a threat to Syria's future.
Turkish troops have been gathering on their side of the Syria border since Monday night, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said. Reporters in the area cited dozens of military vehicles moving toward the border.
"The transfers and military operations are ongoing," Akar said. "We are following the process closely with the commanders."
In a statement, Akar said the operation is to "end" the Islamic State and several Kurdish-led organizations Turkey views as terrorist groups such as the Kurdistan Worker's Party, which headed the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against IS.
He said the military is only targeting groups that "aim to fuel instability and chaos in the region."
Ankara's goal is to establish a 19-mile safe zone for 2 million Syrian refugees. One concern is what could happen if guards monitoring IS captives at a Kurdish prison leave their posts to join the fight against Erdogan's forces.
"Innocent civilians, historic sites, cultural and religious buildings and the environment will be under our protection," he said. "We will remain committed to this goal, even if it slows down the operation."
The offensive is the third major military operation Turkey has conducted in Syria since 2016.