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DECISION TIME

U.S. Forces Try to Stop Syrian Regime Forces from Helping Kurds Fight Turkey

In a confused battlefield, the U.S. intervened to stop some Syrian and Russian forces from advancing into the region to support the Kurds, but to no avail.

Jeremy Hodge10.14.19 2:05 AM ET

GAZIANTEP, Turkey—After five days of fighting, Turkish forces and their Syrian National Army (SNA) allies took over the strategic border crossing of Tal Abyad from the largely-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Sunday afternoon, marking the first significant battlefield victory of the campaign. Following the city’s fall, Turkish and SNA forces made a beeline 45 km south toward the city of Ain Aissa, located along the M4 highway, northern Syria’s largest freeway and main artery facilitating travel throughout the region. 

The day before, Hevrin Khalaf, a prominent SDF civil figure and general secretary of the self-governing region’s largest political party, was gunned down on the highway when her convoy was attacked by Turkish-backed SNA forces. Videos surfacing shortly afterward showed Turkish-backed forces triumphantly setting up checkpoints along the highway and detaining alleged SDF fighters.

Seizing additional points along the road would enable Turkish-SNA forces to drive a wedge between the SDF’s eastern and western territories and seriously disrupt the group’s supply lines during future battles. It would also constitute a southward extension far past any depth agreed upon during previous negotiations between Ankara and Washington for the establishment of a “safe zone”. 

However the assault on Ain Aissa was perhaps most significant due to the presence of nearly 1,000 ISIS members being held at a sprawling SDF prison northwest of the city. By Sunday evening, as the Turkish assault was underway, more than 750 would end up escaping as SDF and U.S. forces reportedly withdrew from the area entirely.

Abd al-Qadr Muwwahad, a prominent SDF humanitarian affairs official claimed that Turkish shelling outside the camp in addition to riots carried out by detainees pushed the camp’s internal security forces to flee. Regional media outlets would cite other Kurdish officials claiming that they simply didn’t have the manpower to both fend off Turkish attacks and continue to administer ISIS facilities. 

The escapes should have been expected. The day before, on Saturday evening, as the Turkish campaign intensified, YPG spokesman Redur Xelil gave a press conference in a secure underground bunker. “Securing ISIS detention centers or chasing sleeper cells is not our priority”, he said. “We are solely focused on fighting Turkish aggression and protecting our people from it. [The] world can handle [the] ISIS issue if they really care about it.”

Such shocking words from a group that has spent the last four years destroying ISIS’ territorial caliphate show the desperation that has gripped Kurdish ranks in light of Donald Trump’s overnight decision to pull U.S. troops from the region.

We were betrayed and disappointed by our friends”, added Xelil, justifying the lack of focus on ISIS saying, “we are currently fighting two battles, one against ISIS and one defending ourselves against Turkey”. 

These statements do not bode well considering ISIS already has managed to carry out attacks since the campaign began. On Friday, ISIS took responsibility for a car bomb in the city of Qamishli that killed and injured an unspecified number of bystanders. On Sunday, ISIS also claimed responsibility for a series of Katyusha rocket attacks fired on a U.S. military base in the eastern city of al-Shadadi. 

In Manbij, the SDF claimed to have foiled the efforts of an ISIS suicide bomber to detonate himself on the city’s eastern outskirts. Although ISIS cells have launched a protracted insurgency throughout SDF territory since having lost their final stronghold of Baghuz in March 2019, the current fighting gives the group new gaps to exploit in carrying out attacks against all parties to the conflict. 

BLOCKING THE REGIME

In addition to Kobani, Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ain and more recently a base at Tal Baydar, the U.S. pullout from Ain Aissa would represent the fifth since the Turkish campaign began. However farther south and west, US forces would hold firm and play a direct role in holding off advances by pro-Assad and Russian forces. 

Late Sunday would witness a massive mobilization and expansion of Assad regime forces throughout the region as reinforcements for the SDF, in a move widely expected and previously proposed by the Kurdish group during earlier bouts of tension with Turkey. In Manbij, one of only two territories held by the SDF west of the Euphrates river, reports of Assad regime forces spreading throughout the city’s northern environs began by early morning. 

“At 10.a.m., I got calls from my family telling me they heard regime forces were carrying out new patrols in the towns of al-Jamusia, al-Zanfal, Arab Hassan, and Majlud,” claimed Mustafa Khaild, an opposition activist living in exile who has been documenting war crimes carried out in his home town by all parties to the Syrian conflict for eight years. “Locals are living in a state of paralysis, absolute terror,” he said. “The regime hasn’t been in Manbij for seven years. Our city was home to one of the most powerful anti-Assad movements early on in the revolution. Many revolutionaries and their families still live in the city. If the regime returned it would be a bloodbath, acts of retribution would never end.” 

Videos showing armed convoys raising regime flags spreading across the countryside north of the city along the SDF’s front line with Turkish and SNA forces later circulated across social media amid rumors that an agreement had been struck between the SDF and the regime to jointly ward off any impending Turkish assault. Russian pro-Kremlin ANNA News reporter Oleg Blokhin, who recently covered Russia’s and Assad’s August takeover of Khan Sheikhoun in addition to Russian private military contractors’ training of pro-Assad militias, put up a live stream from Manbij’s city square in what many felt was the preamble to a Russian advance.

The news came as a shock to Turkish-backed opposition leaders in exile involved in plans for the assault. 

“As far as we had heard from the Turks, Free Syrian Army forces would be allowed to enter the city as per an agreement reached between Turkey and the United States,” claimed Aimad al-Hanaydhil, a member of the Manbij Revolutionary Council (MRC) in exile, a Syrian opposition body that liberated and controlled the city from July 2012 until ISIS’ takeover in January 2014. 

“However since 4:00 p.m. today we began hearing about an agreement between SDF and the regime regarding the handing over of Manbij and Kobani to the regime, which came as a surprise.” 

The city of Manbij has served as a point of contention for U.S.-Turkish relations since at least June 2018, when the U.S. and Turkey announced the formation of the “Manbij Roadmap,” a plan to transfer control of the city from the SDF to a new administration overseen jointly by Turkey and the U.S. The Americans’ failure to make any progress toward this end has served as one of several main grievances held by Turkey that prompted Ankara’s most recent campaign in the north.

Rumors of an Assad regime expansion elsewhere also began to emerge. Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered reported that pro-regime tribal militias were gathering near the al-Risafa and Albu Hamad areas south of Raqqa city preparing to attack the SDF held cities of Tabqa, Mansoura, and other towns in the surrounding countryside. 

At Kobani, where U.S. troops were attacked and evacuated two days before, the SDF announced a formal agreement reached with Moscow for Russia and pro-Assad troops to enter the city. 

RUSSIA WARNS THE TURKS

The official Facebook page for the Russian Defense Ministry’s Hmeimim base issued a stern warning to Turkey, acknowledging that Russian forces would enter the city, stating, “We hope the Turkish side and it’s allied forces will restrain themselves and not behave recklessly in entering an open war with government troops.”

Later in the night SDF forces released a similar statement announcing the group’s formal acceptance of regime forces deploying to all areas throughout the group’s “self administration” area as reinforcements against Turkey. Shortly after, regime troops spread throughout the majority of Hasakah city, the provincial capital and major SDF administrative center, amid large celebratory pro-regime demonstrations there and in Qamishli. In an op-ed written in Foreign Policy, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi described the decision as an attempt to, “save the lives of millions of people who live under our protection”. 

However before long, Syrian regime forces suffered a series of setbacks halting their advance–setbacks invflicted, surprisingly, by U.S. forces. South of Raqqa, near the towns of al-Risafa, Tabqa and Mansoura, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered reported that U.S.-coalition aircraft were circling above regime positions. Shortly after, both outlets would claim U.S. aircraft bombed regime positions in order to prevent them from advancing. Local sources in Deir Ezzor province further claimed the US launched a series of strikes against Syrian regime forces attempting to advance into the area near the towns of Khasham, al-Salihia and Murat.

Khaild and other activists interviewed by The Daily Beast confirmed that US troops stationed at the al-Sa’idi’a military base on the western outskirts of Manbij city carried out a series of their own patrols parallel to pro-Assad forces, warding off the latter and forcing them to abandon the front line. As in al-Risafa, U.S. aircraft would also circle above the city, in a clear effort to demonstrate that, although U.S. forces may have withdrawn in the face of Turkish advances, they would not do so for the regime.

The efforts to halt Assad would not last long. By Monday afternoon, local media quoted American officials saying that their “team tasked with stabilization projects has officially left Syria”. In Manbij, regime sources were quoted as saying they would expand throughout the area after the US withdrew at an unspecified time from its base at the Lefarge cement factory, located east of the city. Unconfirmed reports would also show that small regime convoys managed despite the airstrikes to cross the Euphrates and pass through Tabqa and Raqqa cities towards the frontline towns of Ain Aissa and Tal Tamr. According to well placed sources on the ground, in addition to the SDF’s local Tabqa Civil Council, regime forces, as The Daily Beast went to press, no regime forces remained stationed in either Tabqa or Raqqa cities. Syrian state media however would claim otherwise.

In Manbij, local activists in soon began reporting that rumors of a regime advance similar to that in Hasakah and elsewhere were overblown rumors. “The Assad regime patrols along the north Aleppo countryside were temporary. They didn’t set up any new positions and quickly returned to their bases in al-Arima,” according to Khaild, referring to a small town west of Manbij in SDF territory that Russian and pro-Assad forces have occupied since 2017.  

Some began to believe the SDF had purposefully exaggerated the extent of the regime’s reinforcements as a pre-emptive measure to intimidate Turkish and SNA forces into not attacking the city. Since early in the day, SNA forces stationed along the demarcation line of SDF controlled Manbij had launched three separate attacks on the city. 

However the tentative SDF-Assad alliance failed to deter Turkish forces in any way. They had mobilized a large contingent of SNA reinforcements at the Sajur river, the dividing line between SNA and SDF territory. Social media would be abuzz with videos of Turkish convoys with dozens of armored vehicles heading to the front line. By 11:00 p.m., locals would report renewed joint Turkish-SNA assaults launched on SDF positions. 

Adnan Hajj Muhammad Abu Faysal, commander of the Manbij Military Council in exile, whose forces mobilized throughout the day along the border with Manbij said, “rumors surrounding the arrival of regime reinforcements in Manbij are false. SDF forces simply carried out their own patrols while hoisting Syrian regime flags in an attempt to make it seem as if they had received a wave of new reinforcements.”

In response to Russia’s warning that Turkey “not behave recklessly,” Yassin Iqta’i, an advisor to President Erdogan would say in an interview with the Russian Sputnik network, “the Turkish army will resist any advance by the regime towards Manbij”, adding that, “the regime isn’t strong enough to confront Turkey, and if they are, then bring it on.” 

Youssef al-Hamud, official SNA spokesman, would reiterate that Assad reinforcements in Manbij were a rumor. “The battle for Manbij will begin shortly,” he claimed. But Manbij, a city of at least 100,000, far larger than Tal Abyad, will take a much more powerful force than that which took Tal Abyad. As Turkey’s military campaign in Syria enters it’s next phase, the United States finds itself increasingly pushed to withdraw completely from Syria as its forces face pressure on all sides.

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