U.S. to pull last troops from north Syria as Turkey presses offensive against Kurds

By Sarah N. Lynch and Tom Perry | Sun, October 13, 2019 04:34 EDT

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) - The United States is poised to withdraw some 1,000 troops from northern Syria, its defense secretary said on Sunday, after learning that Turkey planned to extend its military incursion against Kurdish militia further south than originally planned.

Another consideration in the decision, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper indicated, was that Washington's Kurdish-led ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), aimed to make a deal with Russia and Syria to counter the Turkish onslaught.

The Syrian army will deploy along the length of the border with Turkey under an agreement with the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria to help repel the Turkish offensive, the Kurdish-led administration said.

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.

The Syrian army deployment would represent a failure of Western policy by allowing the Iranian-backed Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad to retake territory lost during the more than eight-year civil war with rebels trying to end his rule.

Earlier on Sunday, Turkey's President Tayyip 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".

He told a news conference in Istanbul that the border town of Ras al Ain was already under Turkish control.

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.

Turkey's offensive aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main component of the SDF and seen by Ankara as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. But the SDF has also been Washington's key ally in fighting that has dismantled Islamic State's jihadist "caliphate" in Syria.

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.

(Graphic: Where Kurds live - https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/editorcharts/SYRIA-SECURITY-TURKEY-USA/0H001QXBW8SM/KURDS.jpg)

SANCTIONS THREAT

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.

Sunday's word of the planned evacuation of U.S. forces came a week after U.S. President Donald Trump spoke by telephone with Erdogan and then abruptly shifted policy and withdrew a smaller number of 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 an 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."

A Syrian Kurdish politician told Reuters that SDF and Syrian government officials have been holding negotiations at a Russian airbase in Syria with Russian participation, and expressed hope for a deal that would halt a Turkish attack.

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".

Two U.S. officials told Reuters the bulk of U.S. forces could be pulled out of northern Syria within days.

In a meeting with conservative Christian activists late on Saturday, Trump - who has come under withering criticism for the move, including from politicians in his own Republican Party who normally support him - defended his decision to withdraw troops from the Syrian border. He said the United States should prioritize protecting its own frontiers.

The latest pressure on Trump comes as the White House was already embroiled in an impeachment inquiry led by Democratic opponents in the U.S. House.

TERRITORIAL GAINS

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.

In Akcakale on the Turkish side of the border, around 100 people waved Turkish flags and sounded car horns as they celebrated reports of Turkish-led forces seizing Tel Abyad, a Reuters news team reported.

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 and were still in control.

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.

Lebanese broadcaster al-Mayadeen said on Sunday that the Syrian army would deploy within 48 hours to the town of Kobani, which is held by the SDF, and the nearby town of Manbij, which is controlled by SDF-aligned forces.

(Graphic: Turkey hits Kurdish militia targets - https://graphics.reuters.com/SYRIA-SECURITY-TURKEY-USA/0100B2G11PV/index.html)

MILITANT PRISONERS

The SDF hold large swathes of northern Syria that were once controlled by Islamic State. The SDF has been keeping thousands of IS jihadists in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.

But this weekend, 785 Islamic State-affiliated foreigners escaped the camp at Ain Issa, the region's Kurdish-led administration said in a statement.

The Syrian Observatory, citing sources in the camp, said around 100 people had escaped.

SDF official Marvan Qamishlo told Reuters there were not enough guards for the camp, which is about 30 km (20 miles) south of the Turkish border, saying there were 60-70 compared with a normal level of no fewer than 700 for the camp of 12,000 people.

"The guarding is very weak now," he said, saying there was unrest and escape attempts in prisons across northern Syria. "They are breaking the doors, screaming and attacking the security forces, especially in the camps," he added.

(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 and Lisa Shumaker)

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