WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) – The United States said on Sunday it will withdraw its remaining 1,000 troops from northern Syria in the face of a Turkish offensive and Syria’s army struck a deal with Kurdish forces to redeploy along its border with Turkey, both major victories for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The developments illustrate Washington’s waning influence over events in Syria and the failure of the U.S. policy of keeping Assad from reasserting state authority over areas lost during the more than eight-year conflict with rebels trying to end his rule.
They also represent wins for Russia and Iran, which have backed Assad since 2011 when his violent effort to crush what began as peaceful protests against his family’s decades-long rule of Syria exploded into a full-blown civil war.
While the U.S. withdrawal moves American troops out of the line of fire, the return of Syrian soldiers to the Turkish border opens up the possibility of a wider conflagration should the Syrian army come in direct conflict with Turkish forces.
The remarkable turn of events was set in motion a week ago when U.S. President Donald Trump decided to withdraw about 50 special operations forces from two outposts in northern Syria, a step widely seen as paving the way for Turkey to launch its week-long incursion against Kurdish militia in the region.
Turkey aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main element of Washington’s Kurdish-led ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been a key U.S. ally in dismantling the jihadist “caliphate” set up by Islamic State militants in Syria.
Ankara regards the YPG as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said the Turkish offensive would extend farther along the Syrian border, with the town of Ras al Ain already under Turkish control.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mike Esper said the United States decided to withdraw its roughly 1,000 troops in northern Syria – two U.S. officials told Reuters it could pull the bulk out in days – after learning of the deepening Turkish offensive.
Another factor behind the decision, Esper indicated in an interview with CBS News’ “Face the Nation” program, was that Washington’s Kurdish-led ally, the SDF, aimed to make a deal with Russia and Syria to counter the Turkish onslaught.
Several hours later, the Kurdish-led administration said it had struck just such an agreement for the Syrian army to deploy along the length of the border with Turkey to help repel Ankara’s offensive.
The deployment would help the SDF in countering “this aggression and liberating the areas that the Turkish army and mercenaries had entered,” it added, referring to Turkey-backed Syrian rebels, and would also allow for the liberation of other Syrian cities occupied by the Turkish army such as Afrin.
Earlier on Sunday, Turkey’s Erdogan said the incursion would stretch from Kobani in the west to Hasaka in the east and extend some 30 km (19 miles) into Syrian territory, “in line with the safe zone map which we declared previously”.
Ankara also said Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces had seized a highway some 30-35 km (18-22 miles) into Syrian territory, which would sever a major artery linking the Kurdish-run regions of war-torn Syria’s north.
An SDF official said clashes were going on along the road.
New reports of civilian casualties also surfaced. A Turkish air strike in Ras al Ain killed 14 people including 10 civilians on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said. The SDF said a “civilian convoy” had been targeted.
Ankara’s stated aim is to carve out a “safe zone” inside Syria to resettle many of the 3.6 million Syrian war refugees it is hosting. Erdogan has threatened to send them to Europe if the EU does not back his assault.
But the Turkish offensive has triggered international alarm over its large-scale displacements of civilians and, amidst the upheaval, a heightened risk of Islamic State militants escaping from prisons run by the Kurdish-led authorities.
Some 785 foreigners affiliated with Islamic State fled a camp where they were being held in northern Syria after shelling by Turkish forces on Sunday, the region’s Kurdish-led administration said.
Erdogan dismissed the reports and told the state-run Anadolu news agency that accounts of escapes by Islamic State prisoners were “disinformation” aimed at provoking the West.
Turkey now faces threats of possible sanctions from NATO ally the United States unless it calls off the incursion.
Two other NATO allies, Germany and France, have suspended arms exports to Turkey, and French President Emmanuel Macron was convening an emergency defense cabinet meeting on Sunday to discuss options regarding the offensive.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said on Sunday that Washington was studying “extremely troubling” reports that a Kurdish politician and captured Kurdish fighters were killed by Turkish proxy forces amid the offensive.
More than 130,000 people have been displaced from rural areas around Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain as a result of the fighting, the United Nations said on Sunday.