By Ben Hubbard
A Syrian militia long backed by the United States mobilized its forces and warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” on Wednesday as Turkey massed troops near the countries’ border for an incursion it said would begin “shortly.”
Scattered reports that Turkish troops were already entering Syria early Wednesday were quickly shot down by Turkey, which released a statement saying that accounts “in some media outlets stating that the operation has begun do not reflect the reality.”
Turkey’s planned move to root out Kurdish militants in northeastern Syria, after President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops there, has sparked fierce debates in Washington and could open a dangerous new front in Syria’s eight-year-old war.
New violence between Turkey and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces would pit two U.S. allies against each other in ethnically tinged battles, leaving Washington in an awkward position.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has been threatening to send troops into northeastern Syria to uproot the militia, which the United States has partnered with for years to fight the Islamic State group. Turkey considers the militia a terrorist organization linked to a Kurdish guerrilla movement.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post on Wednesday, Fahrettin Altun, Turkey’s communications director, wrote that Turkish forces, with their Syrian rebel allies, “will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly.”
“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,” he wrote.
The Syrian Democratic Forces said the area was “on the edge of possible humanitarian catastrophe” because of the looming Turkish incursion. “This attack will spill the blood of thousands of innocent civilians because our border areas are overcrowded,” the group said in a statement.
The Kurdish-led administration that governs the area issued a call for “general mobilization” to fight the Turks. “We call upon our people, of all ethnic groups, to move toward areas close to the border with Turkey to carry out acts of resistance during this sensitive historical time,” it said.
In recent days, Turkey has been preparing an incursion, with forces bused to the border and howitzers positioned behind dirt embankments, pointed at Syrian territory.