The chaos created by Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria mounted at the weekend with reports of a mass breakout from a camp housing women and children linked to Isis and an alleged string of roadside killings by Syrian militants fighting alongside Turkish troops.
Hundreds of people fled a camp housing almost 1,000 family members of Isis fighters on Sunday, according to human rights monitors. Save the Children said foreign women and children allegedly connected to the Islamist group could now be “lost in the chaos”.
Sonia Khush, the charity’s Syria response director, said staff had “heard reports that the authorities on the ground took some of the foreign women to another location, but many have fled and some are unaccounted for”.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based war monitor, said six people had allegedly been murdered by the roadside on Saturday, and that 38 civilians had been killed since the military operation started.
The international backlash against Turkey intensified, as France and Germany halted arms sales to their Nato ally.
The alleged murders by the Islamist extremists, including the killing of a female Kurdish politician, are the first sign of ethno-sectarian bloodletting springing from clashes between Ankara-aligned Arab militias and the Kurdish-dominated forces the West armed to fight Isis jihadis.
The Kurdish Red Crescent (KRC), an aid organisation, reported that the Turkey-backed militias had taken control of a stretch of road where they were stopping cars. The KRC said the militants had killed some of the people they held up, including Hevrin Khalaf, the female secretary-general of the Syria Future party.
Grainy footage posted online showed Syrian militants from armed opposition faction Ahrar al-Sharqiya— one of several brought by Turkey into the so-called Syrian National Army umbrella — shooting a man whose hands are bound.
The group said in a statement that it was investigating an alleged killing. Turkey has yet to respond.
Mustafa Yeneroglu, a rare voice of dissent within Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party, criticised the killing of Ms Khalaf as “horrendous” in a post on Twitter. “The groups that carried out this atrocity are barbarians with no relationship to our ‘little Mehmets’,” he said, using an affectionate term for Turkish soldiers. “I strongly condemn it.”
Turkey has backed militants fighting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad throughout the eight-year civil war. But since 2016, when it launched it first large-scale Syria incursion, Ankara has also mobilised these forces against Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), who are linked to a Kurdish militia that has waged a bloody 35-year insurgency on Turkish soil. Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist group.
However, the YPG is core to the Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been supplied and trained by a US-led coalition to spearhead the battle against Isis, which controlled swaths of north-east Syria and only lost its last piece of territory in March.
Donald Trump, US president, pulled American troops out of the way of Turkey’s military operation against the Kurds early last week, allowing Mr Erdogan, to press ahead with the long-threatened offensive.
Western countries fear the operation will severely destabilise north-east Syria, making it easier for Isis prisoners guarded by the SDF to escape or allow Isis sleeper cells to storm detention camps.
The incursion has seen almost the entire length of the border area between the two countries strafed with bombs and shelling since Wednesday. The ground offensive has focused on the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad.
Turkey and its rebel allies said they had taken control of Ras al-Ayn and a stretch of strategic east-west motorway, although SDF officials continued to reject the claims.
About 130,000 people have fled, according to the UN. Meanwhile, Turkish towns have come under fire from inside Syria, killing 18 civilians.
International condemnation of Turkey intensified at the weekend. German chancellor Angela Merkel urged Ankara to end its military operation, warning Mr Erdogan in a telephone conversation on Sunday that the incursion risked destabilising the region and reviving the threat of Isis.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defence minister, said on Sunday: “If there are indications now that Turkey is planning to stay in northern Syria permanently as a kind of occupying power, then there has to be a clear response from our side. This cannot happen.”
European diplomats say EU foreign ministers and leaders are expected to discuss a possible bloc-wide arms embargo during talks this week.
But such a decision would require unanimity among the 28 member states, which have so far struggled to agree a common position on Turkey, partly due to concerns about jeopardising Ankara’s co-operation on curbing migration and fighting terrorism.
Hungary’s foreign minister Peter Szijjarto last week acknowledged that Budapest had sought to block an EU statement condemning Turkey’s military campaign.
“As I see it the case is that there are around 4m migrants and refugees in Turkey, and the Turkish are working towards enabling these people to return to their homes”, he said.
Turkey has also faced pushback from Russia and Iran, the two most important foreign backers of Syria’s president, despite the fact Moscow and Tehran have worked increasingly closely with Ankara on the conflict.
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Saturday offered to mediate between Turkey, the Syrian regime and Kurdish groups “so that the Syrian Army together with Turkey can guard the border”.
Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran and Tobias Buck in Berlin