Russia-backed Syrian forces step in as U.S. retreats

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels drive on a street in the Turkish border town of Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 14, 2019. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Russia-backed Syrian forces step in as U.S. retreats
By Ellen Francis and Tuvan Gumrukcu

BEIRUT/ANKARA (Reuters) – Russia-backed Syrian forces wasted no time in taking advantage of an abrupt U.S. retreat from Syria on Monday, deploying deep inside Kurdish-held territory south of the Turkish frontier less than 24 hours after Washington announced a full withdrawal.

Washington’s Kurdish former allies said they invited in the government troops as an “emergency measure” to help fend off an assault by Turkey, launched last week with “a green light” from President Donald Trump that the Kurds describe as a betrayal.

The Syrian government’s deployment on Monday is a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad and his principal ally Russia, who gained a military foothold across the biggest swathe of the country that had been beyond their grasp.

Under their deal with the Kurds, government forces are poised to move into border areas from the town of Manbij in the west to Derik, 400 km (250 miles) to the east.

Syrian state media reported that troops had already entered Tel Tamer, a town on the strategically important M4 highway that runs east-west around 30 km south of the frontier with Turkey.

State TV later showed residents welcoming Syrian forces into the town of Ain Issa, which lies on another part of the highway, hundreds of km (miles) away. An SDF media official said he could not confirm these deployments.

Ain Issa commands the northern approaches to Raqqa, former capital of the Islamic State “caliphate”, which Kurdish fighters recaptured from the militants two years ago in one of the biggest victories of a U.S.-led campaign.

Much of the M4 lies on the southern edge of territory where Turkey aims to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria. Turkey said it had seized part of the highway. An official of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said clashes were ongoing.

U.S. STRATEGY CRUMBLES

The swift Syrian government deployments came as the strategy the United States has pursued in Syria for the past five years crumbled overnight. Washington announced on Sunday it was abruptly pulling out its entire force of 1,000 troops which had fought alongside Syrian Kurds against Islamic State since 2014.

A U.S. official said on Monday a diplomatic team working to help stabilize territory captured from Islamic State. U.S. troops were still on the ground but early phases of their withdrawal had started, the official said.

Two other U.S. officials have told Reuters the bulk of the U.S. pullout could be completed within days.

Sunday’s announcement of the U.S. retreat came just a week after Trump said he would shift a small number of troops out of the way near the border, allowing Turkey to attack the Kurds in what Kurdish officials branded a stab in the back.

Thousands of fighters from a Kurdish-led force have died since 2014 fighting against Islamic State in partnership with the United States, a strategy the Trump administration had continued after inheriting it from his predecessor Barack Obama.

Trump says he aims to extract the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East, in keeping with his view that Washington cannot be the world’s policeman. However, he has announced the Syrian retreat even as he has sent thousands of troops on a new deployment to Saudi Arabia.

His Syrian policy reversal allowed Turkey to launch a cross-border assault last week that sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing and the Kurds scrambling to find new friends.

“After the Americans abandoned the region and gave the green light for the Turkish attack, we were forced to explore another option, which is talks with Damascus and Moscow to find a way out and thwart these Turkish attacks,” senior Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said.

Jia Kurd described the new arrangement with Assad’s forces as a “preliminary military agreement”, and said political aspects would be discussed later.

The Kurds have led an autonomous administration across a wide stretch of north and east Syria. Assad aims to restore his government’s authority across all of Syria after more than eight years of war.

Another senior Kurdish politician, Aldar Xelil, called the pact with Damascus “an emergency measure”.

“The priority now is protecting the border’s security from the Turkish danger,” Xelil said. “We are in contact with the Damascus government to reach common (ground) in the future.”

The biggest change for years in the battlefield of the world’s deadliest ongoing war, the developments create a potential new frontline hundreds of kilometers long between forces of Russia and Turkey and their Syrian allies and proxies.

The U.S. exit leaves Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, along with Assad’s other ally Iran, as Syria’s undisputed foreign power brokers.

Russia and Turkey have hammered out a fragile truce for the northwest, the only other part of Syria still beyond Assad’s grip. Both predicted they would avoid conflict as the area where they face each other is now set to spread across the breadth of the country.

“There are many rumors at the moment. However, especially through the embassy and with the positive approach of Russia in Kobani, it appears there won’t be any issues,” Erdogan said when asked about the prospect of confrontation with Russia. Kobani, on the Turkish border, is one of the first Kurdish-held cities where reports emerged of possible government deployment.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the suggestion that Russia could clash with Turkish forces. “We wouldn’t even like to think of that scenario,” he said.

ALARM

The Turkish assault has drawn widespread international criticism and alarm that it could allow Islamic State fighters in Syria to escape Kurdish-run prisons and regroup.

Ankara says it aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia – the leading component of the SDF – which it views as a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mike Esper indicated on Sunday that one factor behind the U.S. pullout was that the Kurds aimed to strike a deal with Russia and Syria. Hours later, the Kurdish-led administration said it had made precisely such a deal.

Turkey says it aims to form a “safe zone” in Syria to settle many of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it is hosting. Erdogan said on Sunday that the operation would extend from Kobani in the west to Hasaka in the east.

Turkey’s European allies have criticized the incursion, threatening to impose sanctions. Erdogan says Turkey will send Syrian refugees to Europe if the EU does not back the offensive.

The fighting has raised Western concerns that the Kurds would be unable to keep thousands of Islamic State fighters in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.

The region’s Kurdish-led administration said 785 Islamic State-affiliated foreigners escaped a camp at Ain Issa over the weekend. The British-based war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing sources in the camp, said the number who escaped was smaller, around 100.

Trump, providing no evidence, tweeted on Monday that the Kurds might be releasing Islamic State prisoners deliberately to lure U.S. troops back. Escaped fighters were “easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came, but they should move quickly,” Trump said.

(This story restores dropped word “forces” in headline)

(Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Dominic Evans and Peter Graff; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Party cups as gas masks: Idlib civilians prepare for battle

A boy tries on an improvised gas mask in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

IDLIB, Syria (Reuters) – Hudhayfa al-Shahad strapped a colorful paper cup filled with cotton and charcoal to a child’s face and tightened a plastic bag around his head: an improvised gas mask if chemicals once again fall on Syria’s Idlib.

Civilians in Syria’s last major stronghold of active opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule are preparing food and digging shelters ahead of an expected army offensive.

They are also putting their faith in neighboring Turkey’s diplomacy to spare them from military action, which could become a humanitarian disaster.

“We are preparing what little we can: small primitive masks we can place on our children’s mouths in case we are hit with chemicals,” 20-year-old Shahad told Reuters from his village south of Idlib city, where he shares a house with his pregnant wife, three children and around 15 other people.

His brother, 35-year-old construction worker Ahmed Abdulkarim al-Shahad, shows off the cavernous space under a cool, vine-covered courtyard the family has been digging and sheltering in from bombardment since 2012.

“Military preparations as we have seen are in full swing … We as civilians have started preparing the caves,” he said, showing glass bottles of pickled vegetables shelved on the damp cave walls.

Around 3 million people live in the rebel stronghold in northwest Syria, which comprises most of Idlib province and adjacent small parts of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces.

About half of them fled fighting or were transferred there by the government under surrender deals from other parts of Syria as Assad has steadily taken back territory from rebels.

In April last year, a government warplane dropped sarin on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, killing more than 80 civilians, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry has said. It also said Syrian forces have used chemical weapons, including chlorine, more than two dozen times during the war.

Damascus and its ally Russia both deny these charges and say they do not engage in chemical warfare. Idlib residents are fearful and Washington has warned Assad against using chemical weapons in any offensive, promising a response if he does so.

Children hold plastic bags with a paper cup in them, in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Children hold plastic bags with a paper cup in them, in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

PROTECTION

Russia, Assad’s ally, resumed air strikes against insurgents in Idlib on Tuesday following weeks of bombardment and shelling by pro-Syrian government forces in an apparent prelude to a full-scale offensive against the last major rebel enclave.

But Turkey has said it hopes a summit with Iranian and Russian leaders in Tehran on Friday will avert an offensive.

And some people Reuters spoke to in Idlib suspected an offensive may be avoided.

“I do not believe there will be an attack on Idlib. It’s all a media war,” said 50-year-old former construction worker Jaafar Abu Ahmad from a rural area near Ma’arat al-Nuaman town. “The great world powers have pre-agreed on us and divided the land.”

Nevertheless, seven years of grinding war have taught Ahmad to be prepared. His family is currently expanding a damp dugout they have been digging and sheltering in from strikes for the past five years, stocking it with food.

“We have been digging in the earth for two months non-stop, me, my wife and children,” he said. “This cave is now our protection. We cleaned it recently after it had been neglected for a long time.”

Children walk in a makeshift shelter in an underground cave in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Children walk in a makeshift shelter in an underground cave in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

With shelling, air strikes and rhetoric about an impending offensive increasing, a number of local councils across Idlib have come together and asked Turkey for protection.

“For us in the liberated areas our only guarantor in negotiations is our Turkish brothers,” said Ahmad Shtaam al-Rashu, the 48-year-old head of Ma’shureen village’s local council.

Turkey has erected observation posts along the frontlines between rebels and government forces, and Rashu said Turkey had told them this was a sign of its commitment to protect the people of Idlib.

Idlib is often described as the “last refuge” for rebels and internally displaced civilians, and any offensive threatens new displacement and human misery.

“As for escaping toward the (Turkish) border, I don’t believe we will move from our houses. The bombardment will get us. There is no place left after Idlib,” said Ahmed al-Shahad.

“We will fight to the last man, we no longer have any option.”

(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Syria; Writing by Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Only Syrian army should be on country’s southern border: Russia

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a meeting with his counterpart from Mozambique Jose Pacheco in Moscow, Russia May 28, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

MOSCOW/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Russia said on Monday only Syrian army troops should be on the country’s southern border with Jordan and Israel, after Washington warned of “firm measures” over truce violations in the region.

Rebels control stretches of southwest Syria, bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, while Syrian army troops and allied Iran-backed militias hold nearby territory.

The United States has voiced concern about reports of an impending Syrian army offensive in a “de-escalation zone” in the southwest, warning Damascus it would respond to breaches.

“Of course, the withdrawal of all non-Syrian forces must be carried out on a mutual basis, this should be a two-way street,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference in on Monday.

“The result of this work which should continue and is continuing should be a situation when representatives of the Syrian Arab Republic’s army stand at Syria’s border with Israel,” he said.

Jordan said on Monday it was discussing south Syria with Washington and Moscow, and all three agreed on the need to preserve the ceasefire, which reduced violence since they brokered it last year.

Israel has raised the alarm about Iran’s expanding clout in the seven-year conflict, calling on Monday for its arch-foe to be denied any military presence in Syria. Washington has also demanded Tehran withdraw all forces under its command from Syria.

“We believe that there is no place for any Iranian military presence, anywhere in Syria,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his parliamentary faction on Monday.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will meet Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow on Thursday.

This month, Israel said it launched intensive airstrikes in Syria after what it described as Iranian rocket fire from the south into the Golan.

A senior Israeli official made clear that Netanyahu’s government would not deem the exclusion of Iranian forces from the border region sufficient.

“When you consider the advanced weapon systems – surface to surface missiles and anti aircraft systems – that the Iranians want to deploy in Syria, it becomes clear that they must be prevented from doing so in all of Syria and not only within a limited distance from the Israeli border,” Chagai Tzuriel, director-general of the intelligence ministry, told Reuters.

Moscow, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ally, brokered a string of de-escalation zones for insurgent enclaves last year, though fighting raged on in some. With the support of Russia and Iran, the Syrian army mounted an offensive on the eastern Ghouta enclave and seized it in April.

The southwest region is home to tens of thousands of people and forms a center of the insurgency.

Syrian state media has reported leaflet drops on rebel territory there urging fighters to accept government rule, and a UK-based monitor has reported army movements into the south – two signs of a potential military offensive.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Maria Kiselyova and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Toby Chopra)

U.S.-backed Syrian forces clash with Islamic State militants inside Manbij: monitor

Syrian fighter with weapon

AMMAN (Reuters) – U.S.-backed Syrian forces fought Islamic State militants on Thursday inside the city of Manbij for the first time since they laid siege to the militant stronghold near the Turkish border, a monitor said.

The British-based Observatory for Human Rights said heavy clashes were taking place in western districts of Manbij after the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters swept into the city near the Kutab roundabout, almost 2km from the city center.

The Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), including a Kurdish militia and Arab allies that joined it last year, launched the campaign late last month with the backing of U.S. special forces to drive Islamic State from its last stretch of the Syrian-Turkish frontier.

If successful it could cut the militants’ main access route to the outside world, paving the way for an assault on their Syrian capital Raqqa.

Manbij is in a region some 40 km (25 miles) from the Turkish border and since the start of the offensive on May 31, the SDF has taken dozens of villages and farms around it but had held back from entering the city with many thousands of people still trapped there.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Alison Williams)