Syrian forces move in to help Kurds fight Turks

BEIRUT/ANKARA • Russia-backed Syrian forces wasted no time in taking advantage of an abrupt US retreat from Syria yesterday, 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 Syrian government troops as an “emergency measure” to help fend off an assault by Turkey, launched last week with “a green light” from US President Donald Trump that the Kurds describe as a betrayal.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is set to impose economic sanctions on Ankara, potentially as early as this week, for its incursion into Syria, one of the few levers the US still has over Nato ally Turkey.

The Syrian government’s deployment yesterday is a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad and his principal ally, Russia, which 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, 400km 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 30km 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 kilometres away.

Ain Issa commands the northern approaches to Raqqa, former capital of the “caliphate” of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which Kurdish fighters recaptured from the militants two years ago in one of the biggest victories of a US-led campaign.

The swift Syrian government deployments came as the strategy the United States has pursued in Syria for the past five years crumbled overnight.

The Syrian government’s deployment yesterday is a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad and his principal ally, Russia, which 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, 400km to the east.

Washington announced on Sunday it was abruptly pulling out its entire force of 1,000 troops which had fought alongside Syrian Kurds against ISIS since 2014.

A US official said yesterday a diplomatic team working to help stabilise territory captured from ISIS had already been pulled out.

US troops were still on the ground but early phases of their withdrawal had started, the official said. Two other US officials have told Reuters that the bulk of the US pullout could be completed within days.

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

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

Meanwhile, after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said last Friday that Mr Trump had authorised “very powerful” new sanctions targeting Turkey, the administration appeared ready to start making good on Mr Trump’s threat to obliterate Turkey’s economy.

On Sunday, Mr Trump said he was listening to Congress, where Republicans and Democrats are pushing aggressively for sanctions action.

“Dealing with @LindseyGrahamSC and many members of Congress, including Democrats, about imposing powerful Sanctions on Turkey,” Mr Trump said on Twitter, referring to the loyal Trump ally and US senator who lambasted the President last week.

“Treasury is ready to go, additional legislation may be sought. There is great consensus on this. Turkey has asked that it not be done. Stay tuned!” he added.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that sanctions were “being worked out at all levels of the government for rollout”.

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