Turkey-Syria offensive: Syrian army heads north after Kurdish deal

Syria’s army has started to reach the north of the country, hours after the government agreed to help Kurdish forces facing Turkey.

This is seen as a boost for President Bashar al-Assad as it is the first time his troops, which are backed by Russia, will enter those areas since 2012.

The deal came after the US, the Kurds’ main ally, said it would withdraw its remaining troops from northern Syria.

Turkey’s offensive aims to push Kurdish forces from the border region.

Syrian state media said forces had entered the strategic town of Manbij, in the area where Turkey wants to create a “safe zone” cleared of Kurdish fighters. Earlier, the army pushed into Tal Tamer and Ain Issa, where residents celebrated their arrival.

The swift deployment followed US Defence Secretary Mark Esper’s announcement on Sunday that up to 1,000 US troops would be removed from northern Syria, citing fears that they would end up stuck between “two opposing advancing armies”.

The Turkish offensive and US withdrawal have been internationally criticised, as the Kurdish-led fighters were crucial allies of the international coalition against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria. There are fears about a possible resurgence of the group and the escape of prisoners amid the instability.

What is known about the deal?

According to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Sunday’s agreement will allow the Syrian army to deploy along border areas controlled by Kurdish forces to “repel [Turkish] aggression”.

In 2012, forces loyal to President Assad withdrew from the region to fight rebels elsewhere, letting Kurdish militias take control. Despite disagreeing with their attempts to self-rule, Mr Assad did not seek to retake the territory, especially after the Kurds became partners in the coalition against IS with US troops on the ground.

The agreement represents a significant shift in alliances for the Kurds, who said they had been “stabbed in the back” by President Donald Trump after he pulled dozens of US troops from pockets in the north-east last week.

The move effectively paved the way for the operation by Turkey, which views elements of the Kurdish groups in Syria as an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades.

Apart from fighting IS, the Kurds were fundamental for the US in limiting the influence of rivals Russia and Iran and keeping some leverage on the ground.

For now, Syrian forces will not be deployed between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, where Turkey has focused its efforts. Kurdish-led officials insisted they would remain in charge politically, and retain order in the area.

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