Kurdish forces say they have struck a deal with the Syrian regime and its Russian backers to stem a Turkish military assault, in a dramatic shift that came just hours after Donald Trump ordered the evacuation of the remaining US forces in the country’s north-east.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said it had agreed with the Damascus government that the Syrian army should enter the Kurdish-controlled territory and deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border.
The aim, the group said, was to protect Syria’s territorial integrity and “liberate areas entered by the Turkish army and its hired mercenaries” — a reference to Ankara-aligned Syrian rebels that oppose the regime.
Syrian state media said late on Sunday that Syrian army units were heading north to “face Turkish aggression” without giving details, while a pro-Damascus channel said the Syrian army was heading for the majority Kurdish cities of Manbij and Kobani.
The pact appears to bring President Bashar al-Assad much closer to his aim of retaking “every inch” of Syria, as the devastating civil strife enters its ninth year with the autocratic regime firmly in place and its opposition effectively shrunk to a pocket in the north-west.
It also ushers in huge uncertainty for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His military could soon find itself face-to-face on the battlefield with forces loyal to one of his staunchest foes — and his plan to establish a 30km “safe zone” in the region is now in doubt.
Analysts said that Ankara, which has backed forces fighting Mr Assad since the start of the uprising against him, would be unlikely to want its armed forces to clash directly with the Syrian army — which is backed by Russia and Iran — but warned that the situation was volatile.
The Turkish and Syrian armies would be likely to “race against time and each other” in the days ahead, said Can Kasapoglu, director of the security and defence research programme at the Istanbul-based think-tank Edam. He warned that there could be “dangerous contact lines” between the two militaries.
The deal came at the end of a chaotic 24 hours in which there were reports of jailbreaks by Isis supporters and claims of human rights abuses as the Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces pressed deeper into Syria, followed by a US announcement that all American troops in the region would leave.
Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, said that the roughly 1,000 American forces stationed in northern Syria would be pulled out because the Turkish offensive would be broader than expected. Foreshadowing the SDF announcement, he also warned that Kurdish fighters were looking to “cut a deal” that would leave the US “caught between two opposing advancing armies.”
Speaking to CBS News, he said that Washington was “preparing to evacuate” them “as safely and quickly as possible”.
Mr Trump, who has long sought to end US involvement in Syria, has faced an international backlash after announcing last week that he would pull US troops out of the way of a looming Turkish incursion. The move was widely seen as giving Ankara a green light to attack Kurdish forces that control north-east Syria, who provided the backbone of the US campaign against Isis jihadis.
Following the decision, Turkey unleashed a blistering assault on the region as it attacked Kurdish forces linked to a militia which has waged a 35-year bloody insurgency on Turkish soil. The majority Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which fought Isis under the Syrian Democratic Forces umbrella, described Mr Trump’s decision as a “stab in the back”.
The SDF had flirted in the past with striking a deal with Damascus in the hope of fending off a Turkish assault and safeguarding the semi-autonomous enclave that they carved out during the course of the Syrian civil war.
But the Kurds always struggled to win concessions from the Syrian government, which was reluctant to grant them autonomy, saying that it would “partition” the country.
Mazloum Abdi, SDF commander-in-chief, said on Sunday the Kurds would now have to reconsider their alliances in the face of an “existential threat” from Turkey.
“The Russians and the Syrian regime have made proposals that could save the lives of millions of people who live under our protection,” he wrote in an article published by Foreign Policy. He added that a deal with Moscow and Damascus would still entail “painful compromises”.
The shifting political dynamics followed reports of a mass breakout from a Syrian camp housing women and children believed to be linked to Isis, exacerbating international fears about a resurgence of the Sunni jihadi group in the wake of the Turkish offensive.
Ankara also faced accusations that Syrian militias fighting alongside the Turkish armed forces conducted roadside executions at the weekend, including the killing of a female Kurdish politician, fuelling concerns about human rights abuses.
Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran, Tobias Buck in Berlin, Michael Peel in Brussels and Valerie Hopkins in Budapest
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