Casualties are increasing as Turkey presses on with its cross-border offensive on Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria. At least eleven civilians have died and dozens of fighters from the Kurdish-led SDF and pro-Turkish factions have been killed. Tens of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee from the northern areas amid growing international criticism of the offensive.
“Hundreds of thousands of civilians in northern Syria are now in harm’s way,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees. “Civilians and civilian infrastructure must not be a target.”
Syria is already hosting one of the world’s most complex humanitarian crises, with millions of people displaced both within and outside its borders, and the Turkish offensive threatens to add a frightening new dimension.
Turkey moved into northern Syria on Wednesday 9 october after the US President Donald Trump pulled American troops out of the area. Analysts say the US withdrawal effectively gave Turkey the green light to begin its cross-border assault. On Thursday 10 October, Turkish troops partly encircled the border towns of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad.
The Kurdish Red Crescent said there had been 11 confirmed civilian deaths so far and 28 serious injuries, mostly in Ras al-Ain and another border town, Qamishli. At least five people, including a Syrian baby, were reportedly killed in Kurdish shelling of Turkish border towns.
According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 60,000 people have fled their homes since Wednesday 9 October but aid groups say as many as 450,000 could be forced to move. They have been followed by dozens of aid workers, who crossed the border from north-eastern Syria into Turkey after agencies ordered a widespread evacuation after the Turkish push into the region.
The International Rescue Committee warned in a statement: “As [the] Turkish offensive in Syria begins, the IRC is deeply concerned about the lives and livelihoods of the two million civilians in north-east Syria who have already survived Isis brutality and multiple displacements.”
“A military offensive could displace 300,000 people and disrupt life-saving humanitarian services, including the IRC’s.”
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces warned of an “imminent humanitarian catastrophe” as Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, and the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, both appealed to Turkey to avoid adding to the instability in Syria.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has strongly defended the incursion and threatened Europe saying he will send 3.6 million refugees to the continent if the invasion of Syria is defined as an occupation.
“Hey EU, wake up. I say it again: if you try to frame our operation there as an invasion, our task is simple: we will open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants to you,” Erdogan said in a speech to parliament on Thursday 10 October.
Amnesty International cautioned against indiscriminate attacks that could result in civilian casualties.
“Both Turkish and Kurdish forces have a track record of carrying out indiscriminate attacks in Syria that have killed scores of civilians,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, in a statement. “This must not be allowed to happen again.”
Save the Children also issued a warning ahead of the start of the offensive their deep concern for the hundreds of thousands of people present in the region and urged all military parties on the ground to ensure that operations do not impact civilians who could face widespread displacement or have their movements restricted.
“Currently, there are 1.65 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in this area, including more than 650,000 displaced by war. All essential services including food, water, shelter, health, education and protection must be consistently provided to all civilians, or we could see another humanitarian disaster unfold before our eyes,” Save the Children said.