The Daily Star (Lebanon)
Turkish, U.S. forces start joint Syria patrols
ISTANBUL/MANBIJ, Syria: Turkish and U.S. troops began joint patrols in northern Syria Thursday aimed at averting clashes between Turkey and Washington’s Kurdish allies, but Turkey pressed on with a new threatened offensive nearby to crush the Kurds.
Turkish military advances into northern Syria over the past two years have put U.S. forces directly in the path of advancing troops from Turkey, Washington’s main Muslim NATO ally.
The two countries have been working to avert direct confrontation, even as Turkey aims to crush the Kurdish YPG militia.
The YPG forms the main part of the Syrian Democratic Forces that Washington backs with arms, air support and around 2,000 special forces troops on the ground in the fight against Daesh (ISIS).
To avert more fighting, the U.S. and Turkey agreed three months ago to hold joint patrols around the town of Manbij on the west bank of the Euphrates, under a deal that also saw Kurdish fighters withdraw from the city.
But even as the joint patrols were due to begin this week, Turkey announced a new offensive against the Kurds on the opposite bank of the river, into territory where the SDF is backed by U.S. troops to fight against Daesh.
Turkey’s defense minister and the U.S.-led military coalition in Syria confirmed the start of the joint patrols in Manbij, about 30 kilometers from the Turkish border, Thursday. Previously, U.S. and Turkish forces have held coordinated but separate patrols there.
A Reuters journalist saw a convoy of six military vehicles, some flying the U.S. flag and others flying the Turkish flag, driving Thursday about 20 kilometers from Manbij city.
The patrols are taking place along the dividing line between territory controlled by the SDF-allied Manbij Military Council and a Turkish-controlled area in northern Syria.
However, the U.S.-Turkish cooperation in Manbij does not seem to have succeeded in averting what would be the first Turkish offensive across the Euphrates. Turkey has been firing across the border for five days in preparation for what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says will be an offensive soon to crush the Kurdish forces along the breadth of the Turkish frontier.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group and SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel said Turkish forces shelled and fired on an area near the Syrian town of Tal Abyad on the Turkish border. They said one girl died after being hit.
For the second day in a row, hundreds of protesters poured onto the streets Thursday in SDF-held areas in northern Syria, demonstrating against the bombardment. “We consider it their revenge for the gains made by the Kurds” in Syria, 56year-old Ali Saadun said in the northeastern village of Al-Qahtaniyah.
The SDF said Wednesday that the Turkish attacks had forced it to suspend its campaign against Daesh near the Iraqi border. U.S.-led coalition spokesman Col. Sean Ryan told Reuters in emailed comments Thursday that the suspension was still in place while talks continue.
U.S. relations with Turkey, one of its closest allies in the Middle East for decades, have been strained almost to breaking point in recent months by differences over Syria and a range of other issues.
U.S. President Donald Trump spoke Thursday with Erdogan, discussing Manbij and Idlib in northern Syria. The Turkish leader’s office said they stressed their determination to strengthen ties.
Russia accused rebels in Idlib Thursday of trying to wreck the initiative, the Interfax news agency reported.
“There are still Nusra [Front] militants in Idlib who are not stopping their attempts to wreck the implementation of the memorandum that was agreed between Russia and Turkey,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, was cited as saying. –