Russia-backed Syrian forces take over as US backs out
Kurds invited in government troops as 'emergency measure' to fend off assault by Turkey
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.
It came less than 24 hours after Washington announced a full withdrawal.
Washington's Kurdish former allies said they invited in the government troops as an "emergency measure" to help fend off an assault by Turkey, launched last week with "a green light" from President Donald Trump that the Kurds described as a betrayal.
The Syrian government's deployment yesterday is a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad and his principal ally Russia, who gained a military foothold across the biggest swathe of the country that had been beyond their grasp.
Under their deal with the Kurds, Syrian 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 Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) "caliphate", 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.
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.
"After the Americans abandoned the region and gave the green light for the Turkish attack, we were forced to explore another option, which is talks with Damascus and Moscow to find a way out and thwart these Turkish attacks," senior Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said.
Another senior Kurdish politician, Mr Aldar Xelil, called the pact with Damascus "an emergency measure".
"The priority now is protecting the border's security from the Turkish danger."
The US exit leaves Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russia's Vladimir Putin, along with Mr Assad's other ally Iran, as Syria's undisputed foreign power brokers.
Meanwhile, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said yesterday that Syrian Kurdish fighters had emptied a jail holding ISIS prisoners, and that the prisoners there had been abducted.
Mr Trump, providing no evidence, tweeted yesterday that the Kurds might be releasing ISIS prisoners deliberately to lure US troops back.
Escaped fighters were "easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came, but they should move quickly", Mr Trump said. - REUTERS