Russia sends troops to fill void in Syria after pullout by U.S.
Russia moved to fill the void left by the United States in northern Syria on Tuesday, deploying troops to keep apart advancing Syrian government forces and Turkish troops.
At the same time, tensions grew within NATO as Turkey defied its Western allies’ condemnation of the invasion.
Now in its seventh day, Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish fighters has caused tens of thousands to flee their homes and is re-drawing the map of northern Syria for yet another time in the country’s eight-year civil war.
Russia moved quickly to further entrench its role as a power broker in the region after President Trump ordered the pullout of American forces in northeastern Syria.
The American move cleared the way for Turkey’s invasion aimed at crushing Kurdish fighters who have been allied with the United States.
Desperate for a new protector, the Kurds struck a deal with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces on Sunday began moving into Kurdish-administered areas to shield them against Turkey.
Syrian troops waved flags after they rolled into Manbij, a flashpoint town west of the Euphrates River that Turkey had been aiming to wrest from Kurdish control.
Video by Russian journalists with the troops showed what appeared to be an abandoned outpost where U.S. forces had been stationed.
A U.S. military spokesman, Col. Myles Caggins, confirmed that U.S. troops had completed their pullout from Manbij.
“Coalition forces are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria,” Col. Caggins wrote on Twitter. “We are out of Manbij.”
During the withdrawal, contacts were kept open with the Turks and Russians to ensure the several hundred American forces there got out safely, U.S. officials said.
They left behind a military outpost that suggested a somewhat hurried exit, according to videos posted by Russian soldiers and journalists who toured the place.
Vehicles and weapons appeared to have been removed but a Game Boy, a refrigerator full of soft drinks, and what appeared to be a few boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts remained.
U.S. troops have had outposts in Manbij since 2017, when they went in to avert a battle over the town between Turkish and Kurdish fighters.
Now Russia is playing that role.
The Russian Defense Ministry said military police in Manbij are patrolling “along the line of contact between the Syrian Arab Republic and Turkey.”
A senior Russian official said Moscow is working to prevent a military confrontation between Turkish and Syrian forces.
“No one wants this kind of clash to happen. It’s completely inadmissible. So, of course, we will not allow that,” Alexander Lavrentyev, Russia’s special presidential envoy for Syria, was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper to discuss “issues of mutual interest in the context of situation in Syria,” the Russian Defense Ministry said without elaborating.
Russia has been a staunch ally of Assad for decades and entered the Syrian conflict in 2015, providing air power that eventually turned the tide of the war in his favor.
The Russian military has shipped weapons to Damascus, trained thousands of troops, and put its advisers in key Syrian military units.
In the first week of the Turkish assault, at least 154 fighters from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been killed, as well as 128 fighters from Turkish-backed Syrian factions, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor of the war.
It said at least 69 civilians have been killed in Syria.
Turkey said six of its soldiers have died, as well as at least 20 Turkish civilians killed by Kurdish mortar fire.
Despite the Syrian and Russian deployments, Turkey insisted it would capture Manbij. Asked on Sky News if Turkey’s military was willing to fight Assad’s army, Vice President Fuat Oktay said, “We hope it’s not going to happen, but again we are determined to get control over Manbij.”
A U.S. official said the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops being withdrawn from northern Syria will reposition in Iraq, Kuwait, and possibly Jordan.
The U.S. forces in Iraq could conduct cross-border operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as they did before creating the now-abandoned partnership with Kurdish-led forces, the official said.
After opening the way for the Turkish assault with its pullout, Washington is now trying to restrain its fellow NATO member.
Mr. Trump on Monday announced sanctions aimed at Turkey’s economy. The U.S. called on Turkey to stop the offensive and declare a cease-fire, while European Union countries moved to broaden an arms sale embargo against their easternmost ally.
Mr. Trump plans to send Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and national security adviser Robert O’Brien to Ankara to try to begin negotiations to stop the fighting.