In a major shift in alliance, Kurdish forces announce deal with Damascus on Syrian troop deployment near Turkey border.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shrugged off concerns over a Syrian army deployment along the border, as he indicated that Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria will intensify.
Syrian army troops deployed to the northern town of Tabqa, near Raqqa, and entered the northeast town of Tel Tamer, state media reported on Monday, after Damascus reached an agreement with the Kurdish-led forces in the region to deploy into the area.
“We are coordinating with the Russians,” Erdogan said. “There is a lot of gossip now, but it seems … there won’t be any problem in Kobani with Russia’s positive approach as of now.”
Turkey is in the sixth day of its offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria. It says it has seized control of two key towns, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, although there are reports of ongoing fighting in the latter.
Speaking to reporters before travelling to Azerbaijan on Monday, Erdogan said he expected Kurdish forces to withdraw from other key towns such as Manbij.
“We are about to implement our decision on Manbij,” he said.
“When Manbij is evacuated, we will not go in there as Turkey. Our Arab brothers, who are the real owners, the tribes … will return there. Our approach is to ensure their return and security there.”
Erdogan also welcomed the announcement by the United States that it was pulling out 1,000 troops from northern Syria.
“This is a positive approach,” he told reporters when asked about Sunday’s statement from US Pentagon Chief Mark Esper.
Ankara’s offensive came days after Washington announced it was withdrawing its troops from the area near Syria’s northeast border with Turkey, leaving the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), its main ally in the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group without US military support.
Turkey wants to clear the area of fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Group (YPG) group and create a so-called “safe zone” to resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it hosts on its soil.
Ankara considers the YPG, which spearheads the SDF, a “terrorist” group linked to Kurdish separatists inside Turkey.
In a statement on Facebook on Sunday, the Kurdish-led administration said it had brokered an agreement with al-Assad’s government to counter Turkey’s ongoing push, which has been condemned by European countries.
Syrian state television, SANA, said on Monday that in addition to Tabqa and its airbase that carries the same name, Syrian troops entered several other villages on the southern parts of Raqqa province.
Tabqa was previously an ISIL stronghold and is on the road to the city of Raqqa, which was ISIL’s de facto capital, until it lost both in 2017.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Ceylanpinar near Turkey’s border with Syria, said the fighting in the area has been “very heavy”.
“We’ve heard what looked like pretty heavy artillery strikes and sound of heavy machine guns being used,” he said.
“This is an indication of how quickly the Syrians have responded to this deal with the SDF; an indication of how much the SDF were in need of their help.”
Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the YPG’s key priority is to keep Turkey out of the “predominantly Kurdish urban centres, including Kobane and Qamishli
“They want to avoid mass displacement of the Kurdish population that could even lead to demographic changes in these areas,” she told Al Jazeera, speaking from the Swiss city of Bern.
“Hence, the current quick, rushed understanding with the Syrian government.”