Syrian government forces pushed closer to the Turkish border after striking a deal with Kurdish fighters, as Washington’s decision to abandon its allies reverberated on the battlefield.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says his offensive into Syria is necessary to push back Kurdish militants and resettle refugees, but the rapid advance has drawn international condemnation, accusations of war crimes and a threat of U.S. and European sanctions.
Kurdish forces that previously fought alongside the U.S. have warned they may no longer be able to secure camps and prisons holding Islamic State jihadists, including Europeans whose home countries don’t want them back.
Donald Trump reiterated on Monday that “big sanctions on Turkey” are coming, but defended his decision in Twitter posts reiterating that the U.S. was “not going into another war with people who have been fighting with each other for 200 years.” He also suggested the Kurds may be releasing prisoners “to get us involved.”
The Syrian advance into the northeast has raised concerns that the eight-year Syrian war, which grew out of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, is entering a new and unpredictable phase. Russia, whose aerial support helped turn the tide of the conflict in favor of President Bashar al-Assad, has emerged as the key power broker in the latest battle.
Erdogan launched the Turkish offensive on Wednesday, after receiving assurances from Trump that U.S. troops, which supported the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia during five years of grinding war to defeat Islamic State, would stand aside. Turkey accuses the YPG of links to a separatist group it has been battling for decades and wants to prevent the rise of a Kurdish proto-state on its border.
Assad’s march to the border comes after the Kurdish command for the northeast said it had been forced to strike a deal with Damascus in the face of the rapid Turkish advance.
Russia helped to broker Sunday’s agreement that will could eventually see Assad reestablish control over an area equivalent to roughly one-third of Syrian territory where, with American protection, Kurdish groups had been able to operate an autonomous administration called Rojava.
Syria’s army deployed in Al Tabqa airbase and Ain Issa and was now stationed six kilometers away from the border with Turkey, according to Syria’s Al Ekhbariyah TV, which showed footage of soldiers carrying Syrian flags being welcomed by local residents.
For now, the Assad deployment will be limited to stopping the Turkish advance on the border, Aldar Xelil, a spokesman for the Kudish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said. The autonomous administration remains in place responsible for political leadership and internal security, he said.
“As far as the Syrian forces’ advance, Russia has always wanted the government to recover control of as much territory as possible,” said Elena Suponina, a Moscow-based Middle East expert. “Now that this opportunity has presented itself the Syrian army’s actions are absolutely justified.”
Russia is also mediating between Assad and the advancing Turks to avert a conflict over two key border towns -- Manbij and Kobani -- that Erdogan wants to remove from Kurdish control.
Giving credit to Russia’s mediation, Erdogan played down the threat of an escalation between his army and Assad but indicated that he was pushing ahead with a plan to carve out a buffer zone inside northeastern Syria in which to resettle some 2 million of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey.
The cross-border operation is taking place between the Syrian towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn and appears to be in line with a previous deal between Turkey and the U.S. to set up a joint safe zone that could run about 120 kilometers along the frontier.
“Even though they have done a deal with Syria, (the Kurds) have a very weak hand and the U.S. withdrawal means we’re probably witnessing the end of the ambition of an autonomous Kurdish region for the foreseeable future,” said Bob Bowker, who served as Australia’s Ambassador to Syria for three years from 2005. “It also means that Russia and Syria are probably unlikely to have either the military ability or intelligence resources to prevent a resurgence of Islamic State.”
Kurdish-led forces have tens of thousands of Islamic State fighters, their families, sympathizers and others in their custody in prisons and camps in the northeast. Xelil said that would not change, despite the deployment of Assad’s troops to the border, though Kurdish-led forces have previously warned that they may not be able to secure those areas while fending off an offensive by Turkey. Even Trump allies have warned that chaos in the area could lead to an Islamic State resurgence.
Turkey echoed Trump’s suggestion that the Kurds had allowed jihadists to escape, saying that detainees at the one Islamic State jail in the border area were gone when Turkish forces arrived.
Facing a backlash at home and abroad, Trump has defended his decision to withdraw from the line of fire, saying he did not support the Turkish offensive. On Sunday, he said the U.S. Treasury had further sanctions ready to impose on Turkey. He gave no timeline.
European Union foreign ministers pledged to restrict arms sales to Turkey over its military operation in Syria, seeking to bolster calls for an immediate halt to the offensive. Germany and France said Saturday they stopped shipments of military equipment to their NATO ally.