The Syrian regime deployed troops near the Turkish border and entered a key city Monday to contain Ankara’s deadly offensive against the Kurds, stepping in for US forces due to begin a controversial withdrawal.
The army has kept a presence in Kurdish-controlled Qamishli and Hasakeh in Syria’s northeast since the 2011 outbreak of the country’s war, and deployed a limited number of troops around the key city of Manbij last year at the request of Kurdish forces.
Their new deployment, notably inside Manbij, marks the regime’s return to a region from which Damascus started to withdraw in 2012 and a significant gain for President Bashar al-Assad, who has vowed to reclaim all of Syria’s territory.
Outgunned and without US protection, the autonomous Kurds had few other options to stop the rapid advance of Turkish troops and their Syrian proxies.
Turkey wants to create a roughly 30-kilometer buffer zone along its border to keep Kurdish forces at bay and also to send back some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it hosts.
The United States and its partners, who spent years fighting alongside the Kurds against ISIS in Syria before deserting them, have condemned the Turkish invasion, but their threats of sanctions have failed to stop it.
“Big sanctions on Turkey coming!” US President Donald Trump said Monday.
Washington says it is planning to pull out 1,000 troops – almost the entire ground force – from Syria’s north, in a move welcomed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “a positive approach.”
A US official told AFP that Washington was “executing the order” to withdraw, but did not provide additional details.
Without US protection, France said it may also be forced to pull its troops from the coalition fighting ISIS in Syria.
The chaos in areas targeted in the six-day-old Turkish assault has already led to the escape of around 800 foreign women and children linked to ISIS from a Kurdish-run camp, according to Kurdish authorities.
The Kurds had repeatedly warned of that exact scenario when Western countries refused to repatriate their ISIS-linked nationals and when Trump made it clear he wanted to end the US military presence.
On Monday, Trump said the Kurds “may be releasing” ISIS prisoners to try to keep the US engaged, after Turkey had accused Kurdish forces of deliberately freeing jihadists to “fuel chaos.”
Wasting no time to fill the void, Moscow – the top broker in Syria – clinched a deal between the Kurds and Damascus, whose ties had been icy since Syria’s Kurdish minority threw its lot in with Washington and unilaterally declared self-rule after the regime withdrew to focus on its battles against rebels.
“In order to prevent and confront this aggression, an agreement has been reached with the Syrian government,” the Kurdish administration announced late Sunday.
The commander of the main Kurdish force, Mazloum Abdi, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine: “If we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.”
From early Monday, Syrian regime forces were moving to within several kilometers of the border, AFP correspondents reported.
Residents around the town of Tal Tamr welcomed them with cheers and Syrian state television showed some waving national flags and portraits of Assad.
Syrian troops also deployed in the areas of Tabqa and Ain Issa in the northern province of Raqa, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor.
According to state news agency SANA, troops entered the strategic city of Manbij, located about 30 kilometers south of the Turkish border.
A local official in Manbij, controlled by a military council linked to the Kurdish administration, confirmed that troops had entered and deployed on frontlines.
The move came as Ankara’s Syrian proxies massed in rural areas west of the city in preparation for an assault, an AFP correspondent said.
Erdogan had said he expected Kurdish forces to withdraw from the area.
“When Manbij is evacuated, we will not go in there as Turkey. Our Arab brothers, who are the real owners, the tribes… will return there. Our approach is to ensure their return and security there,” he said Monday.
Another flashpoint area has been the border town of Ras al-Ain, where Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been putting up stiff resistance against the Turkish assault.
“There is a large tunnel network under the town,” said Abu Bassam, a Syrian rebel commander fighting with Ankara’s forces, adding that the SDF were moving “swiftly.”
According to the Observatory, the Turkish attack has already left 133 SDF fighters and 69 civilians dead.
The United Nations says 160,000 people have been displaced.
On the Turkish side, four soldiers and 18 civilians have been killed in six days, either in fighting or from Kurdish cross-border fire, according to Turkish sources.
The Observatory has put the number of pro-Turkish Syrian forces killed at 108.
An internal document circulated Monday by the Kurdish administration, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, stressed the deal with Damascus was purely of a military nature and did not affect the work of the semi-autonomous institutions.
But the de-facto statelet that the Kurds have set up in northeastern Syria has rapidly unraveled in recent days, with their forces losing control of a 120-kilometer-long segment of the border with Turkey.
The area that is now under the control of Turkey and its proxies is ethnically Arab-dominated.
Kurdish officials and residents have expressed outrage at what they call a US betrayal that shortchanges the sacrifices made in the fight against ISIS.
Since 2014, the SDF have been the coalition’s main partner on the ground in Syria, spearheading key battles with allied air support on the way to eliminating the jihadists’ self-proclaimed “caliphate” earlier this year.