The United States said on Sunday it is poised to withdraw some 1,000 troops from northern Syria after learning that Turkey planned to extend a military incursion against Kurdish foes further south than originally planned.
Another consideration in the decision, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper indicated, was that Washington's Kurdish-led ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), were looking to make a deal with Russia to counter the Turkish onslaught.
Outlining Turkey's goals, President Tayyip Erdogan said the incursion would stretch from Kobani in the west to Hasaka in the east, going some 30 km (19 miles) into Syrian territory, "in line with the safe zone map which we declared previously".
He told a news conference in Istanbul that the border town of Ras al Ain was already under Turkish control.
Ankara also said Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces had seized a highway some 30-35 km (18-22 miles) into Syrian territory, which would sever a major artery linking the Kurdish-run regions of war-torn Syria's north.
An SDF official said clashes were going on along the road.
Reports of civilian casualties also surfaced. A Turkish air strike in Ras al Ain killed nine people including five civilians on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said. The SDF said a "civilian convoy" had been targeted.
Turkey's offensive aims to neutralise the Kurdish YPG militia, the main component of the SDF and seen by Ankara as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. But the SDF has also been Washington's key ally in fighting that has dismantled Islamic State's jihadist "caliphate" in Syria.
Ankara's stated broader aim is to carve out a "safe zone" inside Syria to resettle many of the 3.6 million Syrian war refugees it is hosting. Erdogan has threatened to send them to Europe if the EU does not back his assault.
But the Turkish assault has raised international alarm over large-scale displacements of civilians it has caused and, amidst the upheaval, a heightened risk of Islamic State militants escaping from prisons run by the Kurdish-led authorities.
Women affiliated with IS and their children fled en masse from a camp where they were being held in northern Syria on Sunday after shelling by Turkish forces, the region's Kurdish-led administration said.
Turkey now faces threats of possible sanctions from NATO ally the United States unless it calls off the incursion. Two other NATO allies, Germany and France, have suspended arms exports to Turkey. For its part, the Arab League has denounced the Turkish offensive as an "invasion of Arab land." Sunday's word of the planned US forces evacuation came after US President Donald Trump abruptly shifted policy and withdrew a smaller number of US troops deployed to support Kurdish forces in the campaign against Islamic State.
That decision in turn helped open the door for Turkey to uncork its offensive against the Kurdish-led SDF.
"In the last 24 hours, we learned that (the Turks) likely intend to extend their attack further south than originally planned, and to the west," Esper said in a pre-taped interview with CBS.
"We also have learned in the last 24 hours that the...SDF are looking to cut a deal, if you will, with the Syrians and the Russians to counter-attack against the Turks in the north." Esper called the situation "untenable" for US forces, saying he spoke with Trump on Saturday night and that the president directed the US military to "begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria".
On Saturday Trump defended his decision to withdraw some troops in the Syrian border region, telling conservative Christian activists that the United States should prioritise protecting its own frontiers.
ERDOGAN OUTLINES TERRITORIAL GAINS
At his news conference, Erdogan said Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies had besieged Tel Abyad, a key border town west of Ras al Ain. They later advanced into the centre of Tel Abyad where the situation was calm and they were conducting search operations, a Reuters witness there said.
Erdogan added that Turkish-led forces had killed 440 SDF fighters, and had so far captured 109 square km (42 square miles) of terrain including 17 villages around Tel Abyad and four villages around Ras Al Ain.
In Akcakale on the Turkish side of the Syrian border gate, around 100 people waved Turkish flags and sounded car horns as they celebrated reports of Turkish-led forces taking control of Tel Abyad across the frontier, a Reuters news team reported.
Along the front lines of Turkey's assault, Turkish forces and Syrian rebels entered Suluk some 10 km (6 miles) from Turkey's border, the Syrian Observatory said on Sunday.
Turkey's state-owned Anadolu news agency said the rebels seized complete control of Suluk. But the SDF's Qamishlo said SDF forces had repelled the attack and were still in control.
Suluk is southeast of Tel Abyad, one of the two main targets in the incursion, which was bombarded by Turkish howitzers on Sunday afternoon, a witness in Akcakale said.
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, known as the National Army, advanced into Ras al Ain on Saturday but by Sunday there were still conflicting reports as to which side was in control.
ISLAMIC STATE-AFFILIATED FOREIGNERS ESCAPE CAMP
The SDF hold large swathes of northern Syria that were once part of Islamic State's jihadist "caliphate". The SDF has been keeping thousands of IS jihadists in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.
But this weekend, 785 Islamic State-affiliated foreigners escaped the camp at Ain Issa, the region's Kurdish-led administration said in a statement.
The Syrian Observatory, citing sources in the camp, said around 100 people had escaped.
In apparent reference to Turkish-backed rebels, the Kurdish-led administration said "mercenaries" attacked the camp where "Daesh elements" - a reference to Islamic State - in turn attacked camp guards and opened the gates.
SDF official Marvan Qamishlo told Reuters there were not have enough guards for the camp, which is north of Raqqa and about 30 km (20 miles) south of the Turkish border.
"The guarding is very weak now," he said, adding there were now just 60-70 security personnel at the camp compared with a normal level of no less than 700 in the camp of 12,000 people.
Qamishlo also said there was unrest and escape attempts in prisons across northern Syria. "They are breaking the doors, screaming and attacking the security forces, especially in the camps," he added.
More than 130,000 people have been displaced from rural areas around Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain as a result of the fighting, the United Nations said on Sunday.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said OCHA and other relief agencies estimated up to 400,000 civilians in the Syrian conflict zone may require aid and protection in the coming period.
A US State Department spokesman said on Sunday Washington was looking into reports that a Kurdish politician and captured Kurdish fighters were killed in northeastern Syria amid Turkey's offensive.
"We find these reports to be extremely troubling, reflecting the overall destabilization of northeast Syria since the commencement of hostilities on Tuesday," the spokesman said in an email.
On Saturday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory said Turkey-backed groups had killed nine civilians, including Hervin Khalaf, secretary general of the Future Syria Party.
Erdogan has dismissed the growing international condemnation of the military operation, saying Turkey "will not stop it, no matter what anyone says".
In the latest criticism, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Erdogan the offensive may worsen the humanitarian situation and undermine progress towards weakening Islamic State, urging an end to the operation.