WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) – The United States said on Sunday it will withdraw its remaining 1,000 troops from northern Syria in the face of a Turkish offensive and Syria’s army struck a deal with Kurdish forces to redeploy along its border with Turkey, both major victories for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The developments illustrate Washington’s waning influence over events in Syria and the failure of the U.S. policy of keeping Assad from reasserting state authority over areas lost during the more than eight-year conflict with rebels trying to end his rule.
They also represent wins for Russia and Iran, which have backed Assad since 2011 when his violent effort to crush what began as peaceful protests against his family’s decades-long rule of Syria exploded into a full-blown civil war.
While the U.S. withdrawal moves American troops out of the line of fire, the return of Syrian soldiers to the Turkish border opens up the possibility of a wider conflagration should the Syrian army come in direct conflict with Turkish forces.
The remarkable turn of events was set in motion a week ago when U.S. President Donald Trump decided to withdraw about 50 special operations forces from two outposts in northern Syria, a step widely seen as paving the way for Turkey to launch its week-long incursion against Kurdish militia in the region.
Turkey aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main element of Washington’s Kurdish-led ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been a key U.S. ally in dismantling the jihadist “caliphate” set up by Islamic State militants in Syria.
Ankara regards the YPG as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said the Turkish offensive would extend farther along the Syrian border, with the town of Ras al Ain already under Turkish control.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mike Esper said the United States decided to withdraw its roughly 1,000 troops in northern Syria – two U.S. officials told Reuters it could pull the bulk out in days – after learning of the deepening Turkish offensive.
Another factor behind the decision, Esper indicated in an interview with CBS News’ “Face the Nation” program, was that Washington’s Kurdish-led ally, the SDF, aimed to make a deal with Russia and Syria to counter the Turkish onslaught.
Several hours later, the Kurdish-led administration said it had struck just such an agreement for the Syrian army to deploy along the length of the border with Turkey to help repel Ankara’s offensive.
The deployment would help the SDF in countering “this aggression and liberating the areas that the Turkish army and mercenaries had entered,” it added, referring to Turkey-backed Syrian rebels, and would also allow for the liberation of other Syrian cities occupied by the Turkish army such as Afrin.
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Earlier on Sunday, Turkey’s Erdogan said the incursion would stretch from Kobani in the west to Hasaka in the east and extend some 30 km (19 miles) into Syrian territory, “in line with the safe zone map which we declared previously”.
Ankara also said Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces had seized a highway some 30-35 km (18-22 miles) into Syrian territory, which would sever a major artery linking the Kurdish-run regions of war-torn Syria’s north.
An SDF official said clashes were going on along the road.
New reports of civilian casualties also surfaced. A Turkish air strike in Ras al Ain killed 14 people including 10 civilians on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said. The SDF said a “civilian convoy” had been targeted.
Ankara’s stated aim is to carve out a “safe zone” inside Syria to resettle many of the 3.6 million Syrian war refugees it is hosting. Erdogan has threatened to send them to Europe if the EU does not back his assault.
But the Turkish offensive has triggered international alarm over its large-scale displacements of civilians and, amidst the upheaval, a heightened risk of Islamic State militants escaping from prisons run by the Kurdish-led authorities.
Some 785 foreigners affiliated with Islamic State fled a camp where they were being held in northern Syria after shelling by Turkish forces on Sunday, the region’s Kurdish-led administration said.
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.
Turkey now faces threats of possible sanctions from NATO ally the United States unless it calls off the incursion.
Two other NATO allies, Germany and France, have suspended arms exports to Turkey, and French President Emmanuel Macron was convening an emergency defense cabinet meeting on Sunday to discuss options regarding the offensive.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said on Sunday that Washington was studying “extremely troubling” reports that a Kurdish politician and captured Kurdish fighters were killed by Turkish proxy forces amid the offensive.
More than 130,000 people have been displaced from rural areas around Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain as a result of the fighting, the United Nations said on Sunday.
The planned evacuation of U.S. forces came a week after Trump spoke by telephone with Erdogan and then abruptly shifted policy and withdrew about 50 U.S. troops deployed to support Kurdish forces in the campaign against Islamic State.
“In the last 24 hours, we learned that (the Turks) likely intend to extend their attack further south than originally planned, and to the west,” Esper said in the interview with CBS. “We also have learned in the last 24 hours that the … SDF are looking to cut a deal, if you will, with the Syrians and the Russians to counter-attack against the Turks in the north.”
Syrian state media reported that the Syrian army has begun deploying its troops to northern battlefronts to confront “Turkish aggression” on Syrian territory.
Esper called the situation “untenable” for U.S. forces, saying he spoke with Trump on Saturday night and that the president directed the U.S. military to “begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria”.
Erdogan told reporters that Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies had besieged Tel Abyad, a key border town west of Ras al Ain. They later advanced into the center of Tel Abyad where the situation was calm and they were conducting search operations, a Reuters witness said.
Erdogan said Turkish-led forces had killed 440 SDF fighters so far and captured 109 square km (42 square miles) of terrain, including 17 villages around Tel Abyad and four villages around Ras Al Ain.
Turkey’s Anadolu news agency said the rebels seized complete control of Suluk, some 10 km (6 miles) from the border. But an SDF spokesman said its forces repelled the attack.
Suluk is southeast of Tel Abyad, one of the two main targets in the incursion, which was bombarded by Turkish howitzers on Sunday afternoon, a witness in Akcakale said.
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, known as the National Army, advanced into Ras al Ain on Saturday but by Sunday there were still conflicting reports as to which side was in control.
The SDF, which hold large swathes of northern Syria that were once controlled by Islamic State, been keeping thousands of IS jihadists in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps. Western officials fear the Turkish offensive could free the militants and lead a resurgence of Islamic State.
(Graphic: Where Kurds live – here)
(Graphic: Turkey hits Kurdish militia targets – here)
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington and Tom Perry in Beirut; Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul; other Reuters correspondents in the region, Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, and Kirsti Knolle in Vienna; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Lisa Shumaker and Daniel Wallis