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Turkey-backed Syrian rebels seize border town’s centre

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Turkey’s military said it captured a key Syrian border town under heavy bombardment Saturday in its most significant gain since an offensive against Kurdish fighters began four days ago, with no sign of relenting, despite mounting international criticism.

Turkish troops entered central Ras al-Ayn, according to Turkey’s Defence Ministry and a war monitor group. The ministry tweeted: “Ras al-Ayn’s residential centre has been taken under control through the successful operations in the east of Euphrates” River. It marked the biggest gain made by Turkey since the invasion began Wednesday.

The continued push by Turkey into Syria comes days after President Donald Trump cleared the way for Turkey’s air and ground offensive, pulling back U.S. forces and saying he wanted to stop getting involved with “endless wars.”

Trump’s decision drew swift bipartisan criticism that he was endangering regional stability and risking the lives of Syrian Kurdish allies who brought down the Islamic State group in Syria. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces was the main U.S. ally in the fight and lost 11,000 fighters in the nearly five-year battle against IS.

Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition fighters have made gains recently, capturing several northern villages in fighting and bombardment that left dozens of people killed or wounded. The invasion also has raised concerns that IS might take advantage of the chaos and try to rise again after its defeat in Syria earlier this year.

In a statement, the Kurdish-led authority said the incursion has caused successive waves of displacement from Dayrik also known as al-Malikiya at the Iraqi border to Kobani some 400 kilometres to the west.

The United Nations World Food Program on Friday stated over 100,000 people had left their homes in northern Syria since the offensive began on Wednesday, with that number expected to increase. In an emailed statement, Senior spokesperson Herve Verhoosel wrote that the water situation in Al-Hasakah city, where many of the displaced have fled, has deteriorated. A nearby water station was hit on both Wednesday and Thursday, which is currently affecting 400,000 people in the region.

International criticism, demonstrations

Germany’s foreign minister has announced that the country will curtail its arms exports to Turkey, in response to the military offensive.

Heiko Maas on Saturday told weekly Bild am Sonntag that, “against the background of the Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, the government will not issue any new permissions for any weapons that can be used by Turkey in Syria.” 

Maas’s remarks came as thousands of Kurdish immigrants rallied against the Turkish military offensive in cities across Germany. Germany is home to one of the biggest Kurdish communities in Europe. 

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland joined global denunciations of the incursion on Wednesday, tweeting “Canada firmly condemns Turkey’s military incursion into Syria today.”

Her remarks came days before demonstrators organized rallies in America and Canada against the Turkey’s military invasion.

Over 200 demonstrators gathered in Montreal on Saturday, one of several protests held across North America this week. Most were members of Montreal’s Kurdish community, some of whom stated they were worried for family and friends in Syria.

Austria, Switzerland and Greece also saw Kurdish demonstrations against Turkey’s offensive, while thousands of people demonstrated in Paris’s République plaza in support of the Kurds. 

Kurds living in Greece shout slogans during a demonstration against Turkey’s military action in northeastern Syria, in Athens, Greece, on Saturday. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

The Arab League also called for the United Nations Security Council to take measures to force Turkey to halt its military offensive in Syria and “immediately” withdraw its forces from the Arab country, while Iraq’s foreign minister Mohamed Alhakim said the military offensive in northern Syria “reinforces terrorists’ capabilities” to reorganize and undermines world efforts to fight the Islamic State group.

The Turkish incursion is a “blatant aggression” against Syria’s sovereignty and integrity, he added.

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Alhakim spoke Saturday at an Arab League meeting called by Egypt following Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria, which was launched on Wednesday. 

He said the military assault also threatens to fuel other conflicts in Syria and will have “negative repercussions,” especially in Iraq, which is still suffering from the war against IS. 

Iraq’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali al-Hakim attends the Arab Foreign Ministers extraordinary meeting to discuss the Syrian crisis in Cairo, Egypt, on Oct. 12. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

France announced on Saturday they would halt exports of any arms to Turkey that could be used in its offensive, and wants an immediate meeting of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State extremists.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, called on the United States to carry out its “moral responsibilities” and close northern Syrian airspace to Turkish warplanes.

“We don’t want them to send their soldiers to the front lines and put their lives in danger,” the statement said. “What we want is for them” to close the airspace for Turkish warplanes.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Turkey won’t stop until the Syrian Kurdish forces withdraw beyond a 32-kilometre line from the border.

Death toll climbs as military advance continues

Kurdish news agencies including Hawar and Rudaw said that Hevreen Khalaf, secretary general of the Future Syria Party, was killed Saturday as she was driving on the M-4 highway. Rudaw’s correspondent blamed Turkish forces for targeting Khalaf’s car, and Hawar blamed “Turkey’s mercenaries.”

The Observatory said six people, including Khalaf, were killed by Turkey-backed opposition fighters on the road that they briefly cut before withdrawing. 

A civilian wounded in a mortar strike from Syria on Friday in the Turkish border town of Suruc died, Anadolu news agency reported Saturday, bringing the civilian death toll to 18 in Turkey. Turkey’s interior minister said hundreds of mortars, fired from Syria, have landed in Turkish border towns. 

The death toll among Kurdish-led SDF fighters has risen to 74, most of whom have been killed in the Tel Abyad area, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday.

Displaced Syrians sit in the back of a pickup truck on Friday as Arab and Kurdish civilians flee amid Turkey’s military assault on Kurdish-controlled areas in northeastern Syria. (Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)

Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman also said 49 Syrian opposition fighters backed by Turkey have been killed since Wednesday. That’s in addition to 38 civilians on the Syrian side. It added that Turkish troops now control 23 villages in northeastern Syria.

Most of the civilian deaths were also in Tel Abyad, a border town that is one of the focal points of the operation.

A Kurdish police force in northern Syria said a car bomb exploded early Saturday outside a prison where IS members are being held in Al-Hasakah. It was not immediately clear if there were any serious injuries or deaths. 

Kurdish fighters are holding about 10,000 IS fighters, including some 2,000 foreigners.

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