Russian troops patrol between Turkish and Syrian forces on border.
Russian units have begun patrolling territory separating Turkish-backed Syrian rebels from the Syrian army around Manbij in north-east Syria, in a clear sign that Moscow has become the de facto power broker in the region after the evacuation of US troops.
Oleg Blokhin, a Russian journalist usually attached to mercenaries in Syria, posted a video on social media from a deserted US military base in the village of al-Saadiya, near Manbij.
“They [the US] were here yesterday, we are here today,” he said. “Now we’ll see how they were living and what they were doing.”
The sweeping changes across north-east Syria were triggered by Donald Trump’s announcement last week that US troops would withdraw, in effect green-lighting a Turkish offensive on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara has long maintained is an offshoot of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK).
Syrian state media showed residents cheering the arrival of Assad troops in Manbij and Ain Issa, waving flags and throwing rice before the path of soldiers. The regime flag was also briefly raised above the famous clock tower square in Islamic State’s former capital of Raqqa on Monday night, a source in the city said, before it was taken down again by the SDF.
Heavy fighting in the border towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn as well as airstrikes and shelling of other Kurdish-controlled roads and towns has displaced 160,000 people from their homes and killed at least 160 civilians. SDF counter attacks over the border have left 20 Turkish civilians dead, including a Syrian baby.
Despite the prospect of losing the area’s semi-autonomous status, Kurdish officials struck a Russian-brokered deal with Damascus on Sunday for reinforcements to protect Kurdish-held border positions.
The strategically located town of Manbij, a US base for three years, remains a major military target for Turkey, its president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Tuesday. Shelling between Turkish proxy Syrian rebel forces and the SDF continued at intervals throughout the day, although there have been no reports of fighting inside the city itself yet.
Moscow’s special envoy on Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said on Tuesday that Russia is against the Turkish operation and would not allow direct clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces.
“This would simply be unacceptable … And therefore we will not allow it, of course,” he said during a visit to the United Arab Emirates, adding that Turkey and the Assad regime are in direct contact – a major reversal since the early years of Syria’s war, in which Ankara backed calls for Assad’s removal.
Erdoğan claimed on Tuesday that Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels now hold some 1,000 sq km of territory in north-east Syria. Despite the threat of US and EU sanctions, as well as European arms embargoes, Ankara would press on with the creation of a proposed 20 mile (32km) deep “safe zone” on its border stretching from Manbij to Iraq, he said, in which Turkey wants to resettle up to two million Syrian refugees.