UNITED NATIONS – The divided U.N. Security Council failed to agree on Turkey's offensive in northeast Syria on Thursday, with Europeans demanding a halt to military action and Syrian ally Russia calling for “restraint” and “direct dialogue” between the two countries.
The five European council members who called the closed meeting would have liked its 15 members to agree on a statement on the Turkish offensive, launched after President Donald Trump suddenly withdrew U.S. forces from the volatile northeast.
The United States proposed a statement that expressed “deep concern,” called for protection of civilians, and asked Turkey to go through diplomatic channels rather than take military action, council diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because consultations were private.
But Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters afterward that any Security Council statement needs to take into account other aspects of the Syrian crisis, not just the Turkish operation, and should demand the immediate termination of “the illegal military presence” in the country.
So the Europeans issued their own statement after the meeting, urging Turkey “to cease the unilateral military action.” They said the offensive threatens progress against the extremist Islamic State group by a global coalition, undermines stability of the region and exacerbates “civilian suffering.”
The statement by the European council members – United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland – was similar to the European Union's statement issued Wednesday.
Turkey pressed its assault against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in northern Syria on Thursday for a second day, pounding the region with airstrikes and an artillery bombardment that raised columns of black smoke in a border town and sent panicked civilians scrambling to get out.
Amid the fierce fighting, residents fled with their belongings loaded into cars, pickup trucks and motorcycle rickshaws, while others escaped on foot. The U.N. refugee agency said tens of thousands were on the move, and aid agencies warned that nearly a half-million people near the border were at risk.
It was a wrenchingly familiar scene for many who had fled the militants of the Islamic State group only a few years ago.
The Turkish air and ground assault was launched three days after U.S. President Donald Trump opened the way by pulling American troops from their positions near the border alongside their Kurdish allies.
At a time when Trump faces an impeachment inquiry, the move drew swift criticism from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, along with many national defense experts, who say it has endangered not only the Kurds and regional stability but U.S. credibility as well. The Syrian Kurdish militia was the only U.S. ally in the campaign that brought down the Islamic State group in Syria.
Trump warned Turkey to act with moderation and safeguard civilians. But the opening barrage showed little sign of holding back: The Turkish Defense Military said its jets and artillery had struck 181 targets so far.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the military intends to move 19 miles into northern Syria and that its operation will last until all “terrorists are neutralized.”
More than a dozen columns of thick smoke rose in and around the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, one of the offensive's first main targets. Turkish officials said the Kurdish militia has fired dozens of mortars into Turkish border towns, including Akcakale.
As the shelling intensified, cars packed with civilians crowded a bridge linking Syria and Iraq.
“When we came, there were about four lanes of cars on the road and a 1-kilometer-long queue of cars,” said Murad Hassan, a Syrian Kurd from Qamishli.
Turkish officials in two border provinces said mortar fire from Syria killed at least six civilians, including a 9-month-old boy and three girls under 15. On the Syrian side, seven civilians and eight Kurdish fighters have been killed since the operation began, according to activists in Syria.
A Kurdish-led group and Syrian activists said that despite the bombardment, Turkish troops had not made much progress on several fronts. The claims could not be independently verified.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 109 “terrorists” were killed, a reference to the Syrian Kurdish fighters. He did not elaborate, and reports did not indicate anything remotely close to such a large number of casualties.