Assad Forces Enter Strategic Border Town in Northern Syria, Blocking Path to Turks 'Safe Zone'

Kobani is a powerful symbol for Syrian Kurds and their ambitions for self-rule, and is where they first united with U.S. to combat ISIS

Military vehicles transporting Syrian regime troops are stationed on the outskirts of the northern Syrian border town of Kobani, October 16, 2019. -
AFP

Syrian forces on Wednesday night rolled into the strategic border town of Kobani, blocking one path for the Turkish military to establish a "safe zone" free of Syrian Kurdish fighters along the frontier as part of its week-old offensive.

The seizure of Kobani by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad also pointed to a dramatic shift in northeastern Syria: The town was where the United States military and Kurdish fighters first united to defeat the Islamic State group four years ago and holds powerful symbolism for Syrian Kurds and their ambitions of self-rule.

The convoys of government forces drove into Kobani after dark, a resident said. The resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, was one of the few remaining amid fears of a Turkish attack on the town. Syria's state-run media confirmed its troops entered the town.

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Syria's presence in Kobani puts a firm limit on Turkish ambitions in its offensive. The town lies between a Turkish-controlled enclave farther west and smaller areas to the east that Turkey seized in the past week.

Turkey had talked of creating a 30-kilometer (19-mile) deep "safe zone," driving out Kurdish fighters from the border region. Turkish forces had shelled Kobani in recent days as part of the offensive but had not advanced ground troops on it.

The battle for Kobani turned the once-nondescript town into a centerpiece of the international campaign against IS, with TV cameras flocking to the Turkish side of the border to track the plumes of smoke rising from explosions in the besieged town. Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared it would be "morally very difficult" not to help Kobani.

The ISIS extremists were finally driven out in early 2015 in their first major defeat, and an alliance was cemented that would eventually bring down the group's "caliphate" in Syria.

A Kurdish marksman stands atop a building as he looks at the destroyed Syrian town of Kobani, 2015.
AFP

Now the Kurdish authority agreed to allow Damascus to deploy its military in the town and other parts of northeast Syria to protect them from Turkey's offensive launched after U.S. President Donald Trump pulled back American troops working with the Kurds.

On Wednesday, the U.S-led coalition said it had vacated a cement factory south of Kobani, which had served as a coordination center with the Kurdish-led forces. Coalition spokesman Col. Myles Caggins said that after troops left the base, two U.S. fighter jets launched pre-planned airstrikes to destroy ammunition that was left behind.

The coalition also said its forces had left Raqqa, the former capital of the Islamic State that was liberated in 2017, and Tabqa, a town to the west.

"Coalition forces continue a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria," Caggins tweeted.

After being effectively abandoned by the U.S., the Kurds' turn to the Syrian government for protection has allowed Damascus' ally, Russia, to step in as the biggest power player.

Moscow further asserted that role Wednesday, offering to mediate a resolution to the conflict, one day before U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was to begin a mission to press Turkey for a cease-fire.

Still, the repercussions from America's abrupt withdrawal were expanding. Assad's forces are returning to regions of northern Syria they abandoned at the height of the 8-year-old civil war. Moscow has taken a more prominent role as an interlocutor among Assad, the former U.S.-allied Kurds and Turkey.

Kurdish Syrian civilians flee the town of Kobani on the Turkish border, October 16, 2019.
AFP