As Kurds claim border is already being shelled, US appears to backtrack but Ankara says it will not be controlled by threats
Turkey has signalled its intent to press ahead with an attack on US-backed Kurdish-led forces in north-east Syria despite confusion over US policy after officials appeared to backtrack on Donald Trumps decision to withdraw troops from the area.
The vice-president, Fuat Oktay, said Turkey would execute its own plans regarding national security and would not be controlled by threats.
Turkey will not accept a terror corridor or terror state right next to its borders under any circumstances, whatever the cost, he said.
The Trump administration appeared to step back from the presidents reported promise to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyap Erdoan, in a phone call on Sunday that he would withdraw US troops from Syrias north-east.
The decision appeared to clear the way for a Turkish assault on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the US has backed but Ankara considers an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers party (PKK).
The SDF said late on Tuesday night that Turkish forces were already attacking near the border. The Turkish military is shelling one of our points on SereKaniye Border with Turkey, it said in a tweet, referencing the key border town of Ras al-Ain.
It was one of the places from which US troops withdrew from on Monday, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
There were no injuries to our forces. We didnt respond to this unprovoked attack, the SDF said.
After the White House announced that the Turkish offensive was imminent and that US forces would be moved out of the way, Trump was heavily criticised by both Democrats and Republicans, including close allies such as the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell on whom Trump could ultimately rely as a bulwark against impeachment charges.
The critics warned that a rushed withdrawal could open a new front in Syrias complex war, undo gains made against Islamic State and betray a military partner that had lost 11,000 fighters in that campaign.
The criticism prompted a change in tone from Trump on Tuesday morning. He said on Twitter: We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters.
After threatening to obliterate Turkeys economy if it did anything off-limits in the planned offensive, Trump talked up Washingtons relationship with Turkey. So many people conveniently forget that Turkey is a big trading partner of the United States, he said.
The Republican senator Lindsey Graham warned Turkey that Congress would impose sanctions if Ankara went ahead with its offensive.
Any incursion into northern Syria by Turkey creates a nightmare for the region & US national security interests, he said on Twitter. It will be met with most severe sanctions against Turkeys military and economy by Congress at a time we should be working together to solve common problems.
With his rhetorical U-turns and mixed messages, Trump has been publicly coming to terms with policy dilemmas that constrained his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The US cannot afford to worsen its already poor relationship with Turkey and cannot contemplate a military clash with a Nato ally. On the other hand, there is considerable US support, particularly in the Republican party, for standing by the Kurds.
The compromise until Sunday was an effort to establish a demilitarised cordon along the Turkish-Syrian border, patrolled jointly by the Turkish and US forces. That was ultimately torpedoed by Erdoans insistence that the 20-mile-deep zone should be resettled by Syrian Arab refugees, and that Turkish forces establish outposts inside the zone.
When Erdoan told Trump of his intention to invade, Trump agreed to withdraw the US troops in the zone and to try to sell it as the fulfilment of his election promise to bring troops home and to stop Americas endless wars.
White House officials insisted no US troops would be withdrawn from Syria, and that between 50 and 100 special forces would be redeployed from the border zone to more secure positions in Syria.
Nicholas Danforth, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund who studies US-Turkey relations, said: Trump came through for Erdoan in a big way. Now Erdoan has to decide how far to press his luck before provoking a backlash from the US Congress or even Trump himself.
Trumps unpredictability is a double-edged sword for Ankara. Territorial gains Turkey makes in Syria will be immediate and obvious. The full cost of antagonising Washington will appear more slowly.
In Turkey, there has been a mixed reaction to news of the planned assault. Turkeys fragile lira dropped nine cents to 5.80 against the dollar after Trump tweeted a threat of more sanctions on Monday.
People are wondering if the campaign is being used to cover up the economic distress and declining Justice and Development party [Erdogans ruling AKP] votes, said Asl Aydntaba, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
One worries Turkey could stumble into a situation here where rather than just establish a safe zone a war could escalate very quickly.
Nationalistic sentiment is already being drummed up on online. Turkeys national defence ministry posted several clips of Turkish soldiers set to rock music and snippets of the national anthem on its social media accounts. We will come back war veterans or we will come back martyrs, one post read.
Yusuf Erim, a political analyst familiar with the Turkish governments thinking, said that with Isis defeated as a territorial entity and given the appeal of sending back up to 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey a move Ankara insists does not amount to demographic engineering the operations timing made sense.
Trump actually wanted to withdraw in December 2018, so this is not an unplanned idea, Erim said. Neither the US nor Turkey wants a unilateral Turkish operation that would risk a confrontation between the US and Turkish troops. This is a proposal that was on the shelf but has been dusted off and brought back. Its not a spontaneous thing.