People stand together as they flee Ras al Ain town, Syria, Oct. 9, 2019, during an offensive by Turkish troops.
People stand together as they flee Ras al Ain town, Syria, Oct. 9, 2019, during an offensive by Turkish troops.

National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin and VOA's Kurdish and Turkish Services contributed to this report.

Turkey has begun a long-planned military operation in northeastern Syria to take out Kurdish forces branded by Ankara as terrorists, but viewed by much of the West as key partners in the fight against Islamic State.

Hours after airstrikes in the region, the second phase of Turkey's assault began, as Turkish ground troops crossed the border into northeast Syria, the Turkish Defense Ministry said late Wednesday local time.

The Ankara Defense Ministry tweeted, "Turkish armed forces hit 181 targets" in Syria. It did not provide any other details.

However, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokesman Mustefa Bali announced on Twitter, "Ground attack by Turkish forces has been repelled by SDF fighters" in the Tal Abyad region. "No advance as of now."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Wednesday the start of the operation, called "Peace Spring" and said it was aimed at eradicating "the threat of terror'' against Turkey.  

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, with military and Intelligence chiefs, ministers and his ruling party members in an operations room at the presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, Oct. 9, 2019.

The Turkish military operation began days after a surprise and widely criticized White House announcement that U.S. forces would withdraw from the region.

President Donald Trump said in a statement Wednesday, "The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea. There are no American soldiers in the area.

"I made it clear that I did not want to fight these endless, senseless wars -- especially those that don’t benefit the United States. Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place -- and we will hold them to this commitment," his statement said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also echoed the president's claim. Pompeo denied that the U.S. had given Turkey the green light for the invasion. He told PBS NewHour that after talking to Erdogan, "it became very clear that there were American soldiers that were going to be at risk and the president made a decision to put them in a place where they were out of harm's way.”

Turkish airstrikes hit the town of Ras al-Ayn on the Syrian side of the border, local activists said. Smoke could be seen rising from area. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said Turkish warplanes were hitting civilian areas with airstrikes, causing huge panic.  

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 15 people, including eight civilians, had been killed in the airstrikes. More than 40 other people had been wounded, according to the Britain-based monitoring group, which has a network of sources across Syria.

A source in Turkey, told the VOA Turkish Service that mortar shells fired from Tal Abyad, Syria, damaged homes in Akcakale, Turkey.  No one was injured or killed in the attack.

UN Security Council monitoring situation

South African Ambassador the United Nations Jerry Matjila, currently president of the Security Council, said the council was monitoring the situation.

“At this stage we call on all the parties to exercise maximum restraint and to ensure the protection of civilians particularly,” he told reporters Wednesday. “It should also be emphasized that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria.”

A Turkish miltary convoy is pictured in Kilis near the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey, Oct. 9, 2019.

The Arab League said regional foreign ministers will meet in Cairo Saturday after Egypt called an emergency meeting to discuss Turkey's "blatant aggression.''

Bipartisan criticism

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have strongly criticized the U.S. pull-out that paved the way for the Turkish operation, saying the United States would be abandoning Syrian Kurds who had fought the Islamic State terror group alongside U.S. troops.

"Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration. This move ensures the reemergence of ISIS," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Wednesday on Twitter, adding that he will lead an "effort in Congress to make Erodgan pay a heavy price."

"The difficulty we are going through is this, that we have partnered in dignity and clarity and friendship with American forces for 5 years and it is really hard for us to accept an end to this partnership in an unworthy way," SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told VOA's Kurdish service.

Syrian Kurds gather around a U.S. armored vehicle during a demonstration against Turkish threats on the outskirts of Ras al-Ain town in Syria's Hasakeh province near the Turkish border, Oct. 6, 2019.

'Not abandoning Kurds'

Trump has insisted he is not abandoning Kurds that fought with U.S. and coalition partners against IS. At the same time, he has also praised Turkey, inviting Erdogan to visit the White House on Nov. 13, while calling Ankara a "big trading partner" and crediting the Turkish government with "helping me to save many lives at Idlib Province."

In his statement Wednesday, Trump said Turkey is now "responsible for ensuring all ISIS fighters being held captive remain in prison and that ISIS does not reconstitute in any way, shape, or form."

U.S. moves to protect American troops

U.S. military officials confirmed that they have repositioned about 50 U.S. special force members, who had been operating along the Turkey-Syria border, out of harm's way.

"Unfortunately, Turkey has chosen to act unilaterally," Chief Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman said in a statement Tuesday.

Institute for the Study of War Research Assistant John Dunford says Turkey has been preparing for such an offensive for two years.

“What we could see Turkey attempt to do is a sort of limited land grab into Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn in an attempt to set conditions for a further negotiation with the U.S. and other stakeholders in the region,” he said.