Syrian regime forces moved towards the Turkish border Monday after Damascus reached a deal with beleaguered Kurdish forces following a withdrawal announcement by the United States, AFP correspondents reported.
Soldiers waving Syrian flags deployed west of Tal Tamr, not far from the flashpoint border town of Ras al-Ain, which has been a key target of Turkish forces and their proxies since they launched their onslaught six days ago.
Tal Tamr is about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the border but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said some units in the area had moved as close as six kilometers (four miles).
AFP correspondents said the government forces were met by cheering residents and Syrian state television aired footage of people welcoming the soldiers.
SANA did not say from which area the Syrian army had moved into the town.
Tal Tamr is a predominantly Assyrian Christian town that was once held by IS before it was retaken by Kurdish-led forces. Many Syrian Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million, left for Europe over the past 20 years, with the flight gathering speed since the country’s conflict began in March 2011.
Syria’s state news agency later said government forces entered the northern town of Tabqa and its air base that carries the same name, as well as several other villages on the southern parts of Raqqa province.
Tabqa was previously a stronghold of the Islamic State jihadist group, and is on the road to the city of Raqqa, which was IS’ de facto capital, until it lost both in 2017.
According to a newspaper close to the Damascus regime, Syrian forces were also expected to deploy in the areas of Manbij and the border town of Kobane, further east.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled that Turkish troops and their Syrian opposition allies were ready to launch an assault on Manbij.
Erdogan told reporters on Monday: “We are about to implement our decision on Manbij.”
He added that Turkey’s aim would be to return the city to Arab populations whom he said where its rightful owners.
Earlier, Turkish television reports said Turkey’s forces were preparing for an operation on Manbij and were positioned at the city’s edge.
The reports came a day after the United States ordered the withdrawal of almost its entire ground force in Syria.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the move to withdraw 1,000 US troops came after Washington learned that Turkey was pressing further into Syria than expected.
“This is a positive approach,” Erdogan told reporters, when asked about the announcement from Esper.
Turkey’s relentless assault, which has seen air strikes, shelling and a ground incursion manned mainly by Syrian proxy fighters, has killed scores of civilians and fighters since its launch on Wednesday.
The Kurds feel they have been betrayed by the United States, their once formidable ally in the fight against the Islamic State jihadist group, and left to fend for themselves in the battle against Turkish forces.
The massively outgunned Kurds described their deal with the Syrian government as a necessary step to stop the assault.
“In order to prevent and confront this aggression, an agreement has been reached with the Syrian government… so that the Syrian army can deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF),” the Kurdish administration said in a statement.
It came after Syria’s state news agency SANA said the army was sending troops to the north to “confront the Turkish aggression.”
In an editorial published in Foreign Policy magazine, SDF chief Mazlum Abdi wrote: “If we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.”
Kurdish authorities and foreign powers have warned of a major humanitarian crisis, which has already forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.
They have also warned repeatedly that the hostilities could undermine the fight against IS and allow jihadists to break out of captivity.