Russia Says Incursion ‘Unacceptable’; Turkey Ignores U.S. Sanctions
DAMASCUS (Dispatches) -- Syrian government troops have deployed inside the northern city of Manbij, Syria's Ikhbariya state TV said on Tuesday.
The broadcast showed residents of Manbij celebrating the arrival of government troops.
The U.S. military also said its forces left Manbij Tuesday. U.S. troops "are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria. We are out of Manbij”, military spokesman Col. Myles B. Caggins said in a tweet.
Reuters said its journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered the center of Manbij, a flashpoint where U.S. troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.
Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles, the news agency said.
Russia’s Interfax news agency, citing Moscow’s Defense Ministry, said later that Syrian forces had taken control of an area of more than 1,000 square kilometers around Manbij. This included Tabqa military airfield, two hydroelectric power plants and several bridges across the Euphrates river, it said.
In Manbij, Syrian troops were manning joint checkpoints alongside regional Kurdish militia (YPG), witnesses said.
A YPG official said Turkish-backed militants were still 15 km north of the city. Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu agency said six civilians were killed and 13 wounded in three villages near the town of Jarablus in a YPG attack launched from north of Manbij.
Syrian troops arrived Monday in the northern province of Raqqah. Troops moved into the towns of Tal Tamr, about 20 kilometers from the Turkish border, Ein Issa and Tabqa, known for its dam on the Euphrates River and a nearby air base of the same name.
The army’s deployment near the Turkish border came after Syrian Kurdish forces previously allied with the U.S. said they had reached a deal with President Bashar Assad’s government to help them fend off Turkey’s invasion, now in its eighth day.
The army’s return to the region troops abandoned in 2012 at the height of the Syria war is a turning point in the eight-year conflict, giving yet another major boost to the government since the crisis began.
The new situation was set in motion last week, when U.S. President Donald Trump ordered American troops in northern Syria to step aside, clearing the way for an attack by Turkey, which regards the Kurds as terrorists.
The Kremlin’s envoy for Syria on Tuesday called Turkey’s military offensive in northeast Syria "unacceptable” and denied Ankara’s operation had been cleared by Moscow in advance.
Alexander Lavrentiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for Syria, was speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi during an official visit there by Putin.
When asked if there had been an advance agreement between Russia and Turkey about Ankara’s operation, Lavrentiev said, "No. We had always urged Turkey to show restraint and always considered some kind of military operation on Syrian territory unacceptable.”
Lavrentiev’s comments, which suggest growing tensions between Turkey and Russia, came a day after the Kremlin complained that Turkey’s incursion was "not exactly” compatible with Syrian territorial integrity.
"The security of the Turkish-Syrian border must be ensured by the deployment of Syrian government troops along its entire length,” said Lavrentiev. "That’s why we never spoke in favor or supported the idea of Turkish units (being deployed there) let alone the armed Syrian opposition.”
Lavrentiev said Turkey’s actions risked upsetting delicate religious sensitivities in northern Syria.
In particular, he said the area was populated by Kurds, Arabs and Sunnis who would not take kindly to their lands being resettled by people who had never lived there, a reference to Turkey’s plan to house refugees from other parts of Syria there.
Lavrentiev confirmed that Russia had brokered an agreement between the Syrian government and Kurdish forces that saw the Kurds cede control of territory to Syrian troops.
Those talks had taken place at Russia’s Hmeimim air base in Syria among other places, he said.
Turkey ignored U.S. sanctions and pressed on with its offensive in northern Syria on Tuesday.
A week after reversing U.S. policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington’s Syrian allies, Trump announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.
But the measures - mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks - were less robust than financial markets had anticipated, and Trump’s critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.
The Turkish lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher U.S. measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting that Trump had spared Turkish banks.
Bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is relatively small - around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to U.S. financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.
In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen said it was postponing a final decision on whether to build a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over "current developments” after international condemnation of the incursion.
Following Trump’s announcement, the U.S. Treasury said on Monday it had sanctioned Turkey’s energy, defense and interior ministers, as well as the ministries of energy and defense.
Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a week ago swiftly upended five years of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The United States announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with President Assad’s government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.
The UN Security Council will likely meet on Wednesday to discuss the latest developments in Syria, diplomats said, the second such session since Turkey began its offensive.
Trump’s pullout ends joint U.S.-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal meant to persuade Turkey not to invade and attack the Kurdish YPG, seen by Ankara as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish separatist insurgents in Turkey.
The YPG is also the main component of the SDF, which had been Washington’s key regional ally.
A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday morning of the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain where an SDF spokesman reported a fierce battle going on.
Trump has defended his reversal of U.S. policy as part of a plan to extricate the United States from "endless” wars in the Middle East.
But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds.
France said on Tuesday it would hold talks soon with Iraqi and Kurdish leaders to weigh how, amidst the upheaval triggered by the Turkish incursion, to secure thousands of foreign and regional Daesh militants held in Syrian camps and prisons.
Turkey says it aims to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia and create a "safe zone” where millions of Syrian war refugees now in Turkey could be resettled.
The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The regional Kurdish administration puts the number of displaced at 270,000.