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Kurds, Turkey-backed forces clash

Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters fire a heavy machine-gun towards Kurdish fighters, in Syria’s northern region of Manbij. (AP)

AKCAKALE, Turkey, Oct 19, (Agencies): Turkish-backed Syrian fighters clashed with Kurdish-led forces in several parts of northeastern Syria on Saturday, with some crossing the border from Turkey to attack a village, a war monitor said. Both sides blamed each other for fighting that has rattled the US-brokered cease-fire.

Nearly two days into the five-day halt in fighting, the two sides were still trading fire around the key border town of Ras al-Ayn. There has also been no sign of a withdrawal of Kurdish-led forces from positions along the Syrian-Turkish border as called for under the agreement, reached between Turkey and the United States.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry said it was “completely abiding” by the accord and that it was in “instantaneous coordination” with Washington to ensure the continuity of calm. The ministry accused Kurdish-led fighters of carrying out 14 “attacks and harassments” the past 36 hours, most in the town of Ras al-Ayn, which is besieged by allied fighters before the cease-fire. It said the Syrian Kurdish fighters used mortars, rockets, anti-aircraft and anti-tank heavy machine guns.

Turkey also said Saturday said it has recaptured 41 suspected Islamic State members who had fled a detention camp amid the chaos caused by the fighting earlier this week.

The Kurds, meanwhile, appealed to Vice-President Mike Pence to enforce the deal saying Turkey has failed to abide by its provisions and has continued the siege of Ras al-Ayn.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said there were still clashes inside Ras al-Ayn and medical personnel could not enter to help the wounded.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Turkish-backed fighters entered Syria and advanced into Kurdish-held Shakariya, a village east of Ras al-Ayn that saw clashes and a Turkish strike a day earlier.

Video posted online showed the fighters driving alongside the wall Turkey has erected along the border and boasting that they were headed on “an assault” into Syria. The video did not show them crossing the border.

Syrian state media said Turkish-backed fighters also made an “infiltration attempt” south of Ras al-Ayn but were repelled in clashes with the Syrian government military that had just moved into the area. The reports gave no further details.

The Observatory said Saturday that Turkey-backed Syrian fighters have prevented a medical convoy from reaching Ras al-Ayn. It said a medical convoy arrived outside the town Friday but Turkey-backed factions closed the road ahead and behind, leaving it stuck outside Ras al-Ayn.

The agreement – reached in negotiations between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pence – would virtually hand Turkey its aims in the invasion, requiring Kurdish fighters to vacate a swath of territory in Syria along the Turkish border during the cease-fire.

The Kurdish-led force, which said it was in contact with the Americans during the negotiations, said it will abide by the halt in fighting but has not committed to any pull-out. Erdogan warned Friday that Turkey will relaunch its assault on Tuesday when the deal runs out if the Kurdish fighters don’t pull out of a zone 30 km (20-miles) deep running the entire length of the border.

On Saturday, the Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said 41 suspected Islamic State members were re-captured after fleeing a detention camp amid fighting earlier this week in Syria. He said 195 other suspected IS members had already been recaptured. He said the captured IS suspects would be relocated to areas controlled by Turkey in northern Syria, including Afrin and al-Bab.

Last week, there were reports that after a Turkish shell landed near Ein Issa camp that holds members of IS families, more than 700 managed to flee amid the chaos.

Turkey’s state-run English language broadcaster TRT World said the IS members and families were captured by Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces.

Erdogan has accused Syrian Kurdish forces of releasing some 750 IS members and families, amid Turkey’s offensive. The Kurds say they broke out of their camp a week ago, attacking guards, amid heavy clashes and Turkish airstrikes nearby.

Erdogan said on Saturday Turkey would press on with its offensive into northeastern Syria and “crush the heads of terrorists” if a deal with Washington on the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from the area were not fully implemented.

Erdogan agreed on Thursday in talks with Pence a five-day pause in the offensive to allow time for the Kurdish fighters to withdraw from a “safe zone” Turkey aims to establish in northeast Syria near the Turkish border.

On Saturday the fragile truce was holding along the border, with a few Turkish military vehicles crossing the border, Reuters journalists at the scene said. In the last 36 hours, there have been 14 “provocative attacks” from Syria, Turkey’s defence ministry said, adding it was continuing to coordinate closely with Washington on implementation of the accord.

If the agreement with the United States, a NATO ally, falters, Turkey will continue its military operation from where it left off, Erdogan said.

“If it works, it works. If not, we will continue to crush the heads of the terrorists the minute the 120 hours (of the ceasefire) are over,” Erdogan told flag-waving supporters in the central Turkish province of Kayseri.

“If the promises that were made to us are not kept, we will not wait like we did before and we will continue the operation where it left off once the time we set has run out,” he said.

The surprise deal to suspend Turkey’s military offensive in Syria hinged on Erdogan’s demand that Washington agree on a time limit on any ceasefire, a senior Turkish official told Reuters on Friday.

The deal aims to stem a humanitarian crisis, which displaced 200,000 civilians in the region, and ease a security scare over thousands of Islamic State captives guarded by the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia targeted by the Turkish assault.

Ankara regards the YPG, the main component of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.

The planned safe zone would extend more than 30 km (20 miles) deep into Syria. Erdogan said on Friday it would run for some 440 km from west to east along the border, though the US special envoy for Syria said the accord covered a smaller area where Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies were fighting.

Erdogan also said on Friday Turkey would set up a dozen observation posts across northeast Syria, and that he would hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on what steps to take in the planned “safe zone” next week.

France’s president on Friday decried NATO’s inability to react to what he called Turkey’s “crazy” offensive into northern Syria and said it was time Europe stopped acting like a junior ally when it came to the Middle East.

Turkey’s military incursion into Syria to attack Kurdish forces, launched after US President Donald Trump pulled American troops out of the way, caught NATO’s strongest European powers – France, Germany and Britain – by surprise.

It left them incensed, fearing the fighting would cause a security vacuum in which Islamist militants would escape Kurdish prisons and pose new danger, undoing a Western-led coalition’s success in dismantling Islamic State’s territorial “caliphate”.

The Turkish assault also left European Union powers scrambling to form a coherent response beyond refusing to pay Turkey to contain any new refugee crisis on Europe’s doorstep.

Turkey agreed to a truce on Thursday after talks with US officials, setting a five-day pause for Kurdish-led SPF militia to withdraw from an area where Turkish forces now prevail. But Washington said the deal covered only a small part of the territory Turkey aims to seize as a “safe zone”, and shelling could be heard again along the border on Friday.

“I consider what’s happened in the last few days (in northern Syria) to be a serious mistake by the West and NATO in the region,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters after a European Council summit in Brussels.

“It weakens our credibility in finding partners on the ground who will be by our side and who think they will be protected in the long term. So that raises questions about how NATO functions.”

Macron and French government officials have in the last week warned that the 28-nation European Union risks falling into irrelevance on foreign policy unless it finds a stronger and more coherent way to respond to what they see as unpredictable allies such as Trump’s administration.

Discovering through Twitter that the United States was pulling its troops out of northern Syria, which forced France to also withdraw its special forces, made it seem as if Europe was an inconsequential junior ally in the Middle East, Macron said.

“I thought we were in NATO. I thought that the United States and Turkey were in NATO, and then I discovered by tweet that the US had decided to withdraw its troops and pave the way (for Turkey’s offensive) in the area,” he said. “Like everyone else, I realised that another NATO power had decided to attack partners of the coalition fighting Islamic State.”

Macron said it was time for himself, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to act and said they would meet Erdogan in the coming weeks, most likely in London.

“It’s important to meet and coordinate between the three Europeans and Turkey,” Macron said. “We need to see where Turkey is going and how to bring it back to a reasonable position.”

How much the Europeans can actually do to change the dynamics in northern Syria remains to be seen given the balance of power in the region has shifted away from the West.

“The reality I see today is that in the region those who have come out as the winners by imposing their strength are Turkey, Russia and Iran. I’m not sure that was the best strategic thing to happen for Europe and the United States,” Macron said.

“It’s crazy to do what the Turks are in the process of doing.”


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