The Kurdish-led autonomous administration that runs Afrin called Bashar al-Assad regime to send troops to help defend its border with Turkey despite Damascus’ stance against Kurdish autonomy.
The statement posted on the website of the Afrin authorities underscores the increasingly complex theater of war in northern Syria, where Turkey’s fight against a Kurdish militia threatens to scramble alliances in a seven-year-old conflict. “We call on the Syrian state to carry out its sovereign obligations towards Afrin and protect its borders with Turkey from attacks of the Turkish occupier … and deploy its Syrian armed forces to secure the borders of the Afrin area,” the statement said.
The call came despite of the Kurdish efforts to build their own administration which have also alarmed Damascus, that rejects the idea of autonomy from the central state, and has threatened to crush what Assad called “traitors” to Syria. Turkish government, long one of Assad’s main opponents, has meanwhile suggested it agreed its assault on Afrin with Russia, the main foreign military backer of Assad.
“We call on the Syrian state to carry out its sovereign obligations towards Afrin and protect its borders with Turkey from attacks of the Turkish occupier,” it said in a statement on its website.
According to a report by Reuters, the Syrian government has said it is ready to target Turkish jets in its airspace, but has not intervened so far. It suspects the Kurds of wanting independence in the long-run and does not recognize the autonomous cantons they have set up in northern Syria.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the Pentagon said that it carefully tracked weapons provided to the YPG and would continue discussions with Turkey. “We carefully track those weapons that are provided to them, we ensure that they, to the maximum extent possible, don’t fall into the wrong hands and we’re continuing discussions with the Turks on this issue,” Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, joint staff director, told reporters.
McKenzie said Turkey’s operation into Afrin was not helpful and was taking focus away from fighting ISIL. McKenzie has also said there would be no changes in the location of US troops, despite Turkey’s threats to expand military operations in Afrin to Manbij, where US troops are present.
McKenzie, who was quoted by the Associated Press (AP) as saying that the United States is tracking the movement of Turkish troops, and that the U.S. was coordinating closely with Turkey on the whereabouts of its forces in the region. McKenzie downplayed the chances of US troops being threatened, but still noted that they will defend themselves if necessary.
McKenzie has also said the US and Turkey were continuing talks about a “secure zone” but there had been no final decision. McKenzie said that he had not yet seen a movement of SDF fighters moving from the Euphrates River Valley to reinforce Afrin or Manbij, but was watching closely.
Dana White, chief spokeswoman for the Pentagon, said she was aware of news reports that Turkey has asked the US military to leave Manbij, but was not aware of any direct conversations about it, AP quoted her as saying. At this point, the Pentagon is not aware of any changes in the location of US troops there, the AP report said.
Any push by Turkish forces towards Manbij, part of a Kurdish-held territory some 100 km (60 miles) east of Afrin, could threaten U.S. efforts in northeast Syria and bring them into direct confrontation with U.S. troops deployed there.
US forces were deployed in and around Manbij to deter Turkish and US-backed rebels from attacking each other and have also carried out training missions in the area. US President Donald Trump urged Erdogan on Wednesday to curtail the military operation in Syria, the White House said. However Turkey has disputed that characterization of the conversation.
Six days into the campaign, Turkish soldiers and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel fighter allies have been battling to gain footholds on the western, northern and eastern flanks of Afrin. They appear to have made only limited gains, hampered by rain and clouds, which have limited the air support, reported Reuters.
Turkish warplanes struck the northern borders of Afrin, in tandem with heavy artillery shelling, and one civilian was killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group. Dozens of combatants and more than two dozen civilians have been killed so far in the offensive, the Observatory has said.
The Turkish military said in a statement it had killed 303 militants in northern Syria since the operation started. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a YPG-dominated umbrella group backed by the United States in the fight against Islamic State, has previously said that Turkey was exaggerating the number of the dead.