The ministry cited Turkey’s right to self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter in launching an operation it dubbed Claw-Sword on Saturday night. It said it targeted areas “used as bases by terrorists in their attacks on our country”.
Syrian Kurdish officials have alleged civilian deaths from the airstrikes.
The airstrikes came after a bomb shook a busy street in the heart of Istanbul on November 13, killing six people and injuring more than 80 others. Turkish authorities blamed the attack on the PKK and its Syrian partner, the YPG. However, the Kurdish militant groups have denied involvement.
Ankara and Washington both consider the PKK a terrorist group, but disagree on the status of the YPG. Under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the YPG is an ally of the US in the fight against the Islamic State terror group in Syria.
The PKK has been fighting an armed insurgency in Turkey since 1984. The conflict has since claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people.
After the strikes, the Ministry of Defense posted a photo of an F-16 fighter jet with the sentence: “Payback time! The villains will be held accountable for their insidious attacks.” The DHA news agency reported that F-16s took off from airfields in Malatya and Diyarbakir in southern Turkey, while drones were launched from Batman.
The ministry claimed a total of 89 targets were destroyed and a “large number” of what it called “terrorists” were killed in attacks ranging from Tall Rifat in northwestern Syria to the Qandil Mountains in northeastern Iraq.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar supervised the airstrikes from an operations center and congratulated pilots and ground crew. “Our goal is to ensure the security of our 85 million citizens and our borders and to retaliate for any insidious attack on our country,” he said, according to a statement from the ministry.
Akar claimed that a wide range of targets were “destroyed with great success”, including what he described as “the so-called headquarters of the terrorist organization”, without giving further details.
Other Turkish officials reacted to the attacks. Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin tweeted a photo of the Turkish flag with the comment “Payback time for Istiklal” – a reference to the street where last week’s bombing took place.
The airstrikes targeted Kobani, a strategic Syrian town with a Kurdish majority near the Turkish border, which Ankara had previously tried to take over in its plans to establish a “safe zone” along northern Syria.
Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman Farhad Shami said in a tweet that two villages, densely populated with displaced people, were under Turkish bombardment. He said the strikes had resulted in 11 civilian deaths and destroyed a hospital, power station and grain silos.
In the Syrian town of Derik, where the borders of Syria, Iraq and Turkey meet, The Associated Press found a burnt-out gas station with destroyed buildings nearby.
“There were Turkish airstrikes here, about five attacks,” said Abdulgafar Ali, an employee of the gas station. “The bombing caused mass destruction. It completely shut down the station and resulted in the killing and wounding of innocent civilians who committed no sin.”
The Women’s Protection Units, or YPJ, which is affiliated with the YPG, said the airstrikes targeted areas along the Turkey-Syria border, including Kobani, Derbasiyeh and Ein Issa. “The airstrikes are indiscriminate and targeting the people,” YPJ’s media agency said in a written response to The Associated Press.
“The people who fought against the Daesh terror organization are now being attacked by Turkish warplanes,” it said, using an Arabic acronym to refer to the Islamic State group.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war watcher, reported that the attacks had also hit Syrian army positions and at least 12 had been killed, including SDF and Syrian soldiers.
The observatory said about 25 airstrikes were carried out by Turkish warplanes on rural locations in Aleppo, Raqqa and Hasakah.
The Syrian defense ministry said “several” Syrian soldiers were killed in rural areas in northern Aleppo and Hasakah province. Syrian state media had previously reported that three soldiers had been killed.
In neighboring Iraq, Kurdistan Regional Government officials said at least 32 PKK militants had been killed in 25 airstrikes.
The Kurdish-led authority in northeastern Syria said on Saturday that if Turkey attacks, fighters in the area “have the right to resist and defend our areas in an important way that will plunge the region into a long war.”
SDF commander Mazloum Abdi called on people to stay at home and follow the instructions of the security forces. “We are doing everything we can to avoid a major disaster. If war breaks out, it will affect everyone,” he tweeted.
An SDF statement later said the attacks “will not go unanswered. At the right time and place, we will respond forcefully and effectively.”
Turkey’s state news agency Anadolu reported that a Turkish soldier and two police officers were later injured in a rocket attack on the Oncupinar border gate with Syria.
It emerged that Erdogan had ordered the airstrikes when he returned from the G-20 meeting of world leaders in Indonesia on Thursday. The president’s office released footage of Erdogan briefed by Akar on his plane.
Later on Sunday, Erdogan, accompanied by a raft of officials, including Akar, left Turkey for the World Cup opening ceremony in Qatar.
Turkey has invaded northern Syria three times since 2016 and already controls some areas in the north. Earlier this year, Erdogan threatened another military operation in the border area.
Turkish forces launched a new ground and air operation, dubbed Claw-Lock, against the PKK in northern Iraq in April.
Associated Press writers Abby Sewell and Samya Kullab in Baghdad and Bassem Mroue and Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut contributed to this report.