Members of Russian and Syrian forces stand guard near posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province on August 20, 2018. Photo: George Ourfalian / AFP

Syrian militants backed by Turkey renewed an offensive against the key Syria border town of Ras al-Ayn on Friday, leaving five fatalities among Kurdish forces, according to the Kurdish Red Crescent – rendering a US-brokered “ceasefire” worthless.

US Vice President Mike Pence announced on Thursday that America’s former Kurdish allies would be allowed 120 hours to withdraw from a vast annexation zone sought by Turkey.

White evangelical leaders were very quick to criticize the abandonment of the Kurds, who in their heroic struggle against IS helped protect Syria’s Christian population,” said Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

Pence thanked his conservative base, who had been up in arms over the abandonment of the Kurds, for “carrying this moment in prayer”. In other words – case closed.

But with US troops having fully withdrawn from the area, and Russian-backed Syrian troops filling the vacuum, the “deal” aimed at placating Trump’s base was not grounded in reality.

I’m no angel

On October 6, President Donald Trump gave his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan a green-light to launch a military operation in northern Syria.

Turkey has long expressed its desire to carve out a vast buffer zone along its southern border, from the Euphrates River to Iraq – serving the dual purpose of eliminating Kurdish self-rule and providing a dumping ground for 2 million Syrian refugees.

“They’re no angels,” Trump said of America’s former Kurdish allies on Wednesday, defending his decision to abandon a force that was instrumental in retaking major swathes of land from Islamic State.

Trump also sought to downplay the chaotic evacuation of US troops, whose withdrawal was further quickened after one of their positions came under Turkish artillery fire last Friday.

“They were moved awhile ago,” Trump said of US soldiers in Syria at a noon press conference on Wednesday, even as a spokesman for the US-led coalition said that a “deliberate withdrawal” was still underway.

“They’ve got a lot of sand over there, so there’s a lot of sand they can play with,” he said dismissively of the regional fighting forces.

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President Trump, who campaigned on the goal of getting out of the Middle East, has meanwhile touted the fresh deployment of approximately 3,000 US troops to Saudi Arabia.

What Turkey wants

For Turkey, the US concessions in northern Syria will not prohibit a Russian deployment, but they do provide Erdogan with a major diplomatic boost that he can sell to his base.

“Thanks to the shrewd leadership of our president, we got what we wanted,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday following the meeting with Pence.

“This is not a ceasefire,” Cavusoglu stressed, but rather a pause to allow PKK-aligned Kurdish forces to withdraw from Turkey’s desired annexation zone.

A blustery letter from Trump demanding so much was tossed in the bin, Erdogan deputies told the BBC.

But with Russian and allied Syrian government troops having deployed into key locales across the northeast in the past 48 hours, Turkish-backed forces have been effectively consigned to channeling their energies into a handful of villages and the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, where they continued to besiege Kurdish forces on Friday.

Cavusoglu on Thursday acknowledged the possibility that Russia – not Turkey – would be filling the void in northern Syria, adding that the US did not have the capacity to decide.

“We have already been working with Russians for a long time on the political process,” he noted, specifically mentioning the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, where Turkish-aligned jihadists hold sway.

President Putin and Erdogan are scheduled to meet on October 22 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where they are expected to lay the blueprint for far-reaching cooperation, both in Syria, and in the military sphere where Turkey is steadily being pulled from NATO.

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