GAZIANTEP, Turkey—U.S. forces battled to contain the deployment of Syrian regime troops on Monday, as President Bashar al-Assad ordered his forces into several sensitive areas.
Although still seemingly prepared to withdraw from Syria—according to statements from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and other administration officials—sources on the ground told The Daily Beast that American forces continued to try to prevent or at least rein in the full scope of the Assad regime’s deployment throughout the region.
Late Sunday night, local news sources such as Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and other outlets reported that U.S. aircraft launched airstrikes against pro-Assad positions near Tabqa, Mansour, and in Khasham, killing and injuring an unspecified number of fighters.
As The Daily Beast published, well-placed sources on the ground, in addition to the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) local Tabqa Civil Council, claimed no regime military forces remained stationed in either Tabqa or Raqqa cities, although this was disputed by Syrian state media. Sources also said U.S. forces remained stationed at the Qarakozaq bridge that links Manbij to the nearby border town of Kobani, preventing movement between the cities in an attempt to prevent pro-Assad forces from entering the area.
Throughout Sunday evening and Monday morning, Syrian regime forces reportedly spread out and were deployed to several key locations in Syrian Democratic Forces territory as part of a deal stuck to reinforce Kurdish forces amid recent gains by the Turkish military.
Local media reported pro-Assad and some Russian forces deploying to points in Tabqa and Mansour in southwest Raqqa province, Manbij farther west toward Aleppo, and key frontline cities such as Ain Aissa and Tal Tamr farther north toward Turkish forces. In Deir Ezzor province to the east, pro-Assad forces were reported to have attempted to cross the Euphrates at the town of Khasaham, close to a number of large revenue-generating oil fields controlled by Kurds.
With a confusing and disputed picture on the ground, it has become abundantly clear that forces from the U.S., Russia, Syria, and Turkey are operating in dangerously close proximity.
One of the potential flash points is Manbij, the city that 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.
Residents of the city, which has been a center of anti-Assad opposition, are desperate for help in preventing Syrian regime forces from assuming control.
“U.S. forces have been stationed at the Qarakozaq bridge and preventing traffic from moving since yesterday,” said Nawaf al-Mustafa, a local activist. “We hope they stay and hold off long enough for Turkish-backed forces to enter the area, otherwise, many people will have to flee.”
Mustafa Khaild, another opposition activist living in exile who has been documenting war crimes carried out in his hometown by all parties in the Syrian conflict for eight years, confirmed to The Daily Beast that U.S. troops stationed at the al-Sa’idi’a military base on the western outskirts of Manbij city also carried out a series of their own patrols parallel to pro-Assad forces late Sunday night, warding off regime forces and forcing them to abandon the front line.
Khalid said it would be devastating if Assad’s forces were able to take control. “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.”
Rumors had previously circulated of a U.S.-Turkish deal to prevent the arrival of Assad regime forces in Manbij, one of two areas west of the Euphrates controlled by the SDF, according to locals. Those hopes seemed uncertain throughout Sunday and Monday morning. Despite apparent U.S. efforts to hold off pro-Assad forces, the Syrian regime has been carrying out patrols in the countryside west of Manbij, adjacent to regime territory, and continues to patrol around Tal Tamr and Ain Aissa.
However, the course of events shifted once again when Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech Monday afternoon in which he made clear Ankara would back a new campaign to take control of Manbij city and its surrounding countryside, albeit with one caveat: Turkish troops themselves would not enter the fray. “The Turkish army won’t enter Manbij,” Erdogan claimed. “We’ll be content with providing assistance to Syrian opposition and tribal forces.”
As The Daily Beast went to publish, Turkish aircraft carried out strikes on SDF positions in the town of Arab Hassan along the al-Sajur River, in coordination with a larger Free Syrian Army push in the area. A high-ranking military source who asked to have his identity concealed confirmed to local sources in touch with The Daily Beast that a Turkish-backed FSA assault on the area is underway.
The largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces’s overnight alliance with the regime is the result of recent significant gains made by Turkish and Turkish-backed FSA forces—collectively known as the Syrian National Army (SNA)—elsewhere in northern Syria, east of the Euphrates. On Sunday afternoon, after five days of fighting, Turkish forces and their FSA allies took over the strategic border crossing of Tal Abyad from the SDF, marking the first significant battlefield victory of the campaign. Following the city’s fall, Turkish and SNA forces made a beeline 45km 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 held 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 al-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 night 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 last week.
“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.
As a result of these developments, Assad regime forces began mobilizing throughout the region late Sunday, in a move widely expected and previously proposed by the Kurdish group during earlier bouts of tension with Turkey. In Manbij, reports of Assad regime forces spreading throughout the city’s northern environs began by early morning.
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 livestream from Manbij’s city square in what many felt was the preamble to a Russian advance.
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 with Moscow for Russia and pro-Assad troops to enter the city.
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 its 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.” In light of the newly launched Turkish-backed FSA front on Manbij, only time will tell if these efforts pay off.