Syria’s troops have entered northeastern towns and villages, Syrian state media said on Monday, after Washington announced it was abruptly pulling out its forces, and its former Kurdish allies reached a deal with Damascus to help resist a Turkish attack.
U.S. President Donald Trump says he is putting new sanctions on Turkey, halting trade negotiations and raising steel tariffs in an effort to pressure Ankara to stop its military offensive Syria against Kurdish forces it views as a terrorist threat.
Trump said Monday that he soon will sign an executive order permitting sanctions to be imposed on current and former Turkish officials.
Before the invasion, Trump ordered a couple dozen U.S. troops out of harm's way. Critics say Trump's decision gave Turkey a green light to go against the Kurds, who had helped the United States battle Islamic State militants.Syrian government troops moving into northern Syria for the first time since 2012 is setting up a potential clash with Turkish-led forces.
Turkey-backed Syrian fighters say they have begun an offensive alongside Turkish troops to capture the Kurdish-held town of Manbij. Mustafa Seijari, an official with the Turkey-backed fighters, tweeted: "The battle of Manbij has begun."
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Kurdish official Aldar Khalil said in a statement that the aim of the agreement is for Syrian troops to be deployed along the border, except for the area between the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad, where Turkish troops are advancing. He added that the autonomous authority will continue to run daily affairs in northeast Syria.
"There is an understanding between SDF and Damascus — a military agreement only," said Badran Ciya Kurd, a senior Kurdish official, referring to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. He has been in talks with Russians since the start, and he made his comments in an interview with The Associated Press.
Syrian state media broadcast repeated footage of government forces entering northern towns and villages with residents chanting slogans in support of Assad, while others rushed to hug the soldiers. In a northern village, residents welcomed the troops by showering them with rice, an Arab gesture of welcome. In another village, dozens of young men rode motorcycles as some waved posters of Assad.
"We are going back to our normal positions that are at the border," said a Syrian officer, as embattled Kurdish authorities invited the government to retake towns and villages in the north.
"May God protect the army!" residents responded. The Syrian troops arrived in the northern province of Raqqa aboard buses and pickup trucks with mounted machine guns. Troops moved into the towns of Tal Tamr, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Turkish border, Ein Issa and Tabqa, known for its dam on the Euphrates River and a nearby air base of the same name.
The abrupt U.S. withdrawal from the eight-year Syrian war, and the potential return of the Syrian army to the Kurdish-controlled northeast, are major victories for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Russia and Iran.
The U.S. announced on Sunday it would swiftly withdraw its remaining 1,000 troops from northeast Syria, just four days after Turkey launched its cross-border offensive with a green light from President Donald Trump.
Trump decided a week ago to move U.S. troops out of the way of the Turkish assault, an act denounced as a stab in the back by the Kurds, thousands of whom died fighting against Islamic State in partnership with Washington since 2014.
Ankara says its operation aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which was the key U.S. partner in dismantling the jihadist “caliphate” set up by Islamic State militants in Syria.
Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group because of its links to guerrillas waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey.
Two U.S. officials told Reuters the bulk of the U.S. pullout could be completed within days.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mike Esper indicated on Sunday that one factor behind the pullout was that the SDF aimed to strike a deal with Russia and Syria to counter the Turkish offensive. Hours later, the Kurdish-led administration said it had made such a deal for the Syrian army to deploy along the Turkish border to repel Ankara’s incursion.
Syrian state media said on Monday that Syrian troops entered Tel Tamer, a town on the strategically important M4 highway that runs east to west along the border with Turkey.
SANA said government forces would “confront the Turkish aggression,” without giving further details. Photos posted by SANA showed several vehicles and a small number of troops.
Tel Tamer is a predominantly Assyrian Christian town that was once held by ISIS before it was retaken by Kurdish-led forces. Many Syrian Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million, left for Europe over the past 20 years, with the flight gathering speed since the country’s conflict began in March 2011.
Later on Monday, SANA reported government forces have entered the northern town of Tabqa and its air base that carries the same name, as well as several other villages on the southern parts of Raqqa province, previously an ISIS stronghold.
Tabqa is on the road to the city of Raqqa, which was ISIS’ de facto capital, until it lost both in 2017.
A top Syrian Kurdish official said a “preliminary military” deal with Damascus had been reached for government forces to enter border areas from the town of Manbij in the west to Derik, 400 km (250 miles) away in the northeast.
Badran Jia Kurd said the deal is limited to the army’s deployment along the border and the two sides will discuss political issues later. The Kurds have set up an autonomous administration in territory they control, while Assad aims to impose the rule of his government across all Syrian territory.
The army deployment would help the SDF in countering the Turkish offensive and “liberating the areas that the Turkish army and mercenaries had entered,” it added, referring to Turkey-backed Syrian rebels. It would allow the recapture of other Syrian cities captured by the Turkish army such as Afrin.
While the U.S. withdrawal moves American troops out of the line of fire, the return of Syrian soldiers to the border with Turkey opens up the possibility of a wider conflict should the Syrian army come in direct confrontation with Turkish forces.
Turkey says it aims to form a “safe zone” in Syria to settle many of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it is hosting. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday that the operation would extend from Kobani in the west to Hasaka in the east, and go some 30 km (20 miles) into Syrian territory, with the town of Ras al-Ain now in Turkish control.
Erdogan signaled on Monday that Turkish troops and their Syrian opposition allies are ready to launch an assault on the Syrian-Kurdish held city of Manbij. “We are about to implement our decision on Manbij,” he told reporters.
He added that Turkey’s aim would be to return the city to Arab populations whom he said were its rightful owners.
Earlier, Turkish television reports said Turkey’s forces were preparing for an operation on Manbij and were positioned at the city’s edge.
Turkey also said it seized part of a key highway some 30-35 km into northern Syria. An SDF official said clashes were going on along the road.
Turkey’s European allies have also criticized the incursion, warning of potential sanctions. Erdogan says that Turkey will “open the gates” to Europe for Syrian refugees if the European Union does not back the offensive.
Turkish armed forces continued sporadic cross-border bombardment overnight, residents on the Turkish side said. A Reuters cameraman in the town of Suruc reported occasional howitzer fire.
The fighting has sparked Western concerns that the SDF, holding large swathes of northern Syria previously controlled by Islamic State, would be unable to keep thousands of jihadists 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. The British-based war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing sources in the camp, said around 100 people had escaped.
Erdogan dismissed the reports and told the state-run Anadolu news agency that accounts of escapes by Islamic State prisoners were “disinformation” aimed at provoking the West.
Trump has placed the onus on the Kurds and Turkey to restrain the Islamic State fighters and blamed European nations for not taking back their own citizens.
Turkey has said it would take responsibility for Islamic State fighters that fall within the “safe zone” it aims to form, but would not be accountable for those outside it.