Russian forces began sweeping in to fill a security void left by withdrawing American troops in northern Syria on Tuesday, with Moscow-backed mercenaries taking control of a strategic former U.S. special operations outpost and Russian troops engaging in armored patrols as the new buffer between Turkish and Syrian armies.
Video posted on social media by Russian journalists traveling with the mercenaries and Syrian government forces showed abandoned American military tents under camouflage netting, as well as other remnants hastily left behind in recent days by U.S. troops near the strategic Syrian town of Manbij.
Officials at the Pentagon confirmed that American forces, who had manned outposts around Manbij for the past two years, have pulled out since President Trump ordered the withdrawal days ago. On Monday, the Pentagon said roughly 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria would be shifted to other nations in the Middle East.
Russia’s defense ministry said Russian military troops began working their way into frontline areas between Turkish and Syrian army positions in northern Syria on Tuesday. Although Moscow has long backed the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russian officials said the goal of the patrols is to prevent clashes with the Turks.
The Kremlin said in a statement late Tuesday that President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had spoken by phone about the need to prevent clashes between Turkish and Syrian troops and to prevent thousands of Islamic State militants now in the custody of Syrian Kurds from escaping. Mr. Erdogan reportedly accepted an invitation to visit Moscow in the coming days.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke by phone with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, the Kremlin revealed.
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Amid the flurry of developments, the Turkish military offensive entered its seventh day. Turkish troops moved into the area after Mr. Trump began withdrawing American troops who had been supporting Kurdish forces in the area.
The Turkish offensive, which rights groups say has involved atrocities against Kurdish civilians fleeing the war zone, has upended a complex mix of alliances that had brought a period of relative stability to the near-decade-long civil war in Syria, where the Islamic State terror group once held significant territory.
Russia as power broker
Tuesday’s moves by Russia were widely seen as an attempt to cement its role as de facto power broker for the region as Syria emerges from eight years of brutal civil war.
Coincidentally, the battlefield maneuvering in Syria came just as Mr. Putin was engaged in a diplomatic tour of the region, meeting with Saudi Arabian leaders, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Monday and officials of the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday.
Mr. Putin signed an energy cooperation agreement in Riyadh and inked some $1.3 billion in deals on his stop in the UAE.
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“You will not be disappointed by your Russian partners,” the Russian president said of the agreements, according to the al Jazeera network.
The U.S. withdrawal has essentially abandoned the area’s Kurdish fighters, whom Washington had for years armed and depended upon to wage a bloody ground campaign against the Islamic State that ultimately stripped the terror group of its self-proclaimed “caliphate” earlier this year.
With the U.S. backing now gone and Turkish forces now bearing down, Syrian Kurdish leaders have scrambled to strike a deal with Mr. Assad and his military for protection.
Damascus, which has recovered much of the country lost during the chaotic civil war, has been deploying troops into the Kurdish-administered areas since Sunday, a development that suggests the Syrian government, with Russia’s support, is now close to regaining control of a vast swath of territory it had previously lost to the Kurds.
But fears are mounting that major new violence could be on the horizon if the Syria army clashes with the advancing Turkish troops.
Mr. Erdogan defended Turkey’s offensive in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, calling on the international community either to support his effort to create a resettlement “safe zone” for refugees in northeast Syria, or “begin admitting refugees.”
“Turkey reached its limit,” Mr. Erdogan wrote in reference to 3.6 million Syrian refugees Turkey is sheltering. He said Turkey’s warnings that it would not be able to stop refugee floods into the West without international support “fell on deaf ears.”
However, other Turkish officials expressed outrage Tuesday that Syrian forces are now protecting the Kurds. A top spokesman for the Erdogan government told Agence France-Presse that a “dirty deal” was underway between Damascus and the Kurds. Ankara argues the Syrian Kurdish fighters are terrorists tied to Kurdish separatists in Turkey who have waged a long and at times bloody campaign against the Turkish state.
Analysts say Mr. Erdogan likely has hopes to push far more deeply into Syria than a 20-mile deep “safe zone.”
“Erdogan’s ambitions are big,” Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The Washington Times in a recent interview. “He wants to expand the borders of Turkey and he can do it.”
“Russia and Syria are going to want to push him back and so is Iran,” Mr. Landis said.
Russia’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said Tuesday that Turkey has no right to deploy its forces in Syria permanently and should not cross further than six miles into Syrian territory.
“We didn’t agree with the Turks [on] any questions about their presence in Syria and we don’t approve of their actions,” Mr. Lavrentyev told reporters in Abu Dhabi, according to Al Jazeera.
Restraining the Turks
The Trump administration is also attempting to restrain the Turkish advance, despite having cleared a crucial barrier to military action by pulling out U.S. forces.
The administration has already announced economic sanctions against Turkey and Mr. Trump said Tuesday that Vice President Mike Pence will head to Turkey Wednesday to personally deliver a threat of more sanctions if Ankara doesn’t agree to the cease-fire in Syria.
“We put the strongest sanctions that you can imagine,” Mr. Trump said during a Rose Garden event at the White House. “We have a lot in store if they don’t have an impact, including massive tariffs on steel. They [the Turks] ship a lot of steel to the United States. They make a lot of money shipping steel; they won’t be making so much money.”
But private experts say the initial round of U.S. sanctions, including targeted penalties of Turkish officials, higher tariffs of Turkish steel exports and the scrubbing of a planned bilateral trade deal, will fall far short of forcing Mr. Erdogan to reverse course.
Timothy Ash, emerging market strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, called the sanctions “minimal” and “window-dressing,” noting that any trade deal was years away, according to the Associated Press.
Concerns were also escalating Tuesday that the current chaos in Syria could bring a resurgence of Islamic State, since a network of Kurdish-run prison camps holding thousands of the terror group’s captured fighters and the families has reportedly been collapsing.
While Mr. Trump has said the camps would become Turkey’s responsibility, U.S. allies in the anti-ISIS coalition say they are in the dark about what will happen to the detainees.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for a meeting of the coalition, warning Monday that the Turkish offensive could undermine years of effort to defeat the jihadist terror threat.
“It’s a very serious issue. … The Islamic State is not dead,” he told Le Figaro newspaper.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.