Turkish-Backed Forces Clash With Syrian Army, Advance On Manbij

Together with SouthFront

On the evening of October 14, Turkish-backed miltiant groups officially announced an advance on the town of Manbij, which was controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The advance started a few hours after units of the Syrian Army was deployed north of Manbij.

According to pro-Turkish sources, Turkey-led forces shelled several positions of the Syrian Army and even captured a battle tank.

On Monday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said that his troops would continue to support an invasion of parts of northern Syria, despite the return of Syrian government forces. The official Turkish explanation for the offensive was to clear the area of the Kurdish-led militia that has close ties with a terrorist group that is banned in Turkey. At the start of the invasion, Turkish officials said they respected Syrian sovereignty.

Speaking at a news conference, Erdogan said a Turkish-backed force would press on with attempts to capture Manbij, a town at the crossroads of two major highways that the Kurdish authorities in northern Syria have handed over to the Syrian government. He then criticized NATO allies for not aiding in Turkey’s fight.

“There is a struggle against terrorists — are you going to stand by your ally, a NATO member, or the terrorists?” he asked.

The invasion of Manbij would be led on the ground by Syrian Arab militias, but would have Turkish backing, Mr. Erdogan said. The Turkish president appeared to be more ambivalent about Kobani, a Kurdish-run city on the Syrian border that Erdogan had previously threatened to capture. It was the scene of a fierce battle between Kurdish fighters and ISIS extremists in 2014 and 2015 that ended in an ISIS retreat.

Erdogan implied on Monday that an agreement about Kobani had been reached with the Russian government, Syria’s main international backer, though his meaning was unclear.

“In Kobani with Russia’s positive approach, it seems like there won’t be a problem,” Erdogan said, without elaborating.

A local journalist said by phone that American troops had been deployed to a strategically-located bridge south of Kobani over the Euphrates River, making it harder for Syrian government troops to reach the area and the United States military base in its vicinity.

The Kurdish authorities handed over control of Kobani to the Syrian government overnight, in a bid to stop Turkish-led forces from making further gains.

Meanwhile, as the NYT reports, the return of government forces to northeastern Syria not only deals a blow to Kurdish-led forces who were supported by the United States, but also signals a major shift in Syria’s eight-year war. The Syrian Army entered the town of Tel Tamer in northeastern Syria, the state news media reported on Monday, soon after the government of President Bashar al-Assad forged an alliance with the Kurdish forces that control the region.

The Syrian government had been almost entirely absent from the northeast since it withdrew or was chased out by armed rebels in the early years of Syria’s civil war. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia that worked with the United States to fight the Islamic State, soon became the region’s overarching political force.

Although the Syrian Kurds did not declare Assad’s government an enemy, the Syrian president looked askance at their goal of self-rule and vowed to retake all his country’s territory.  He had no way to do so, however, especially with American troops remaining in the area. Trump’s decision last week to move those troops out of the way of a Turkish incursion gave Assad an opening, and his forces began to fill it on Monday. Trucks drove large numbers of Syrian soldiers into the area to take up positions.

In some towns, they were welcomed by residents who chanted nationalistic slogans and carried Assad’s photograph.

Tel Tamer is a strategic crossroads that connects northeastern Syria with the country’s northern hub, Aleppo, and is 20 miles from Ras al Ain, the center of the Turkish assault.

If Syrian government forces can reach the Turkish border to the north and the Iraqi border to the east, it would be a major breakthrough in Mr. al-Assad’s quest to re-establish his control over the whole country.

Syrian government forces also entered the town of Ain Issa on Monday, a day after it was briefly overrun by Turkish-led troops. Around 500 ISIS sympathizers took advantage of the mayhem and escaped detention, local officials said.