The battle for Ras al Ain raged as Turkey pursued a four-day-old, cross-border offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia despite an outcry from the United States and European Union and warnings of possible sanctions unless Ankara desisted.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration said Turkey’s incursion was causing “great harm” in relations with its NATO ally. Germany, also a NATO ally, said it was banning arms exports to Turkey and the head of the Arab League denounced the offensive.
Ankara began its onslaught against the YPG militia, which it says is a terrorist group backing Kurdish insurgents in Turkey, after Trump withdrew some U.S. troops who had been backing Kurdish forces in the fight against Islamic State.
The assault has raised international alarm over its mass displacement of civilians and the risk it could trigger a revival of an Islamic State insurgency in Syria, with a heightened possibility of IS militants escaping Kurdish prisons.
The Kurdish-led administration in Syria’s northeast said nearly 200,000 people had been uprooted so far by the fighting, while the U.N. World Food Programme put the figure at more than 100,000 in the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain.
Turkey’s stated broader objective is to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria to resettle many of the 3.6 million Syrian war refugees it has been hosting. Erdogan has threatened to send them to Europe if the EU does not back his assault.
Turkish officials posted photos on Saturday showing deserted streets and Syrian rebels standing on Kurdish militia flags in Ras al Ain.
“The (Syrian rebel) National Army took control of (Ras al Ain) town center this morning,” a senior Turkish security official said, referring to the Syrian rebels Ankara backs. “Inspections are being conducted in residential areas. Mine and booby trap searches are being carried out.”
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in which the YPG comprises the main fighting element, denied losing the center of Ras al Ain. Marvan Qamishlo, an SDF spokesman, said they had only carried out a “tactical retreat” in response to hours of heavy Turkish bombardment.
“Now the SDF’s attack has started and there are very fierce clashes,” he told Reuters. “The clashes are continuing in the industrial district,” he said, saying this was the part of Ras al Ain closest to the border.
Speaking as night fell Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, said the SDF was still in control inside Ras al Ain, and fierce clashes were going on there.
The senior Turkish official said “nearly all” YPG forces had fled south from Ras al Ain. Turkish artillery continued to shell parts of the town, a Reuters reporter said.
The SDF holds most of the northern Syrian territory that once made up Islamic State’s “caliphate” in the country, and has been keeping thousands of fighters from the jihadist group in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.