A Russian presidential envoy to Syria said on Oct. 15 that Damascus and Ankara were in “real-time dialogue,” as the Syrian army takes full control of the pivotal city of Manbij.
Alexander Lavrentiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for Syria, said that negotiations were taking place between the two countries’ defense and foreign ministries, as well as between their respective intelligence services, as Turkey’s military offensive in northeastern Syria is ongoing.
“A dialogue between Turkey and Syria is taking place, it is taking place continuously,” he told reporters in Abu Dhabi on Oct. 15, state-run news agencies reported.
“Negotiations are proceeding in real time between the defense and foreign ministries and special services – the talks are ongoing as we speak,” Lavrentiev also said.
Calling Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria “unacceptable,” the envoy denied Ankara’s operation had been cleared by Moscow in advance.
Lavrentiev made his comments after Turkey ignored new sanctions from the U.S. and pressed on with its offensive, while the Russian-backed Syrian army swept into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by U.S. forces amid Trump’s retreat.
Turkey launched an operation in northern Syria on Oct. 9 with several aims, including clearing the area from People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants and creating a “safe zone” in order to allow for the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland.
The military offensive, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, was launched after U.S. President Donald Trump announced U.S. troops would be withdrawing from the area, a move that took Washington’s Kurdish-led ally Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) by surprise.
The leading group in the SDF is the YPG, which is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a group that’s designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union.
Trump’s withdrawal decision gives a free hand to Washington’s foes in the world’s deadliest ongoing war, namely Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
Coalition out of Manbij
Upon the U.S. troops’ pullout, the SDF said on Oct. 13 they welcomed the government troops as an emergency step to help fend off the Turkish offensive.
The invitation was followed by the Syrian army taking full control of Manbij, a flashpoint where U.S. troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey under a deal aimed at persuading Ankara not to invade.
At the same time, U.S. forces announced they had pulled out of Manbij.
“We are out of Manbij,” said Colonel Myles B Caggins, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, adding that the troops “are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”
Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city’s outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles, Reuters reported.
A group of journalists accompanied by Syrian army personnel ventured into the city of Manbij, where upon their arrival a group of people gathered, waving the Syrian flag and pictures of Assad.
Yet the reporters left when gunfire was heard and a group of some 10 young men in YPG uniforms began breaking cameras and yelling.
Syrian state media said SDF fighters had opened fire on a march organized by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.
Russian Defense Ministry said that Russian soldiers are coordinating with Turkey’s army in the city, adding that Russian military police are patrolling the contact line between Syrian and Turkish forces in northern Syria.
Kurdish forces entered Manbij, rebels say
Commenting on the issue, the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, dubbed the Syrian National Army, said forces that entered the city of Manbij were said to be from the Syrian government but were mostly Kurdish militants.
Youssef Hammoud, spokesman for the group, said that while some Syrian government forces had entered the city, the bulk were Kurdish fighters who had been deployed from the Syrian government-held city of Aleppo.
“The forces that entered Manbij are said to be regime forces but most of them are members of the PYD [Democratic Union Party],” he said, referring to the main Syrian Kurdish party.
National Army militants would continue to advance towards Manbij, he added.
Russia brokered agreement between Syrian gov’t, Kurds
During his speech, Lavrentiev was asked if there had been an advance agreement between Russia and Turkey about Ankara’s operation.
“No. We had always urged Turkey to show restraint and always considered some kind of military operation on Syrian territory unacceptable,” he said.
Lavrentiev’s comments, which suggest growing tensions between Turkey and Russia, came a day after the Kremlin complained Turkey’s offensive was “not exactly” compatible with Syrian territorial integrity.
“The security of the Turkish-Syrian border must be ensured by the deployment of Syrian government troops along its entire length,” said Lavrentiev.
“That’s why we never spoke in favor or supported the idea of Turkish units [being deployed there] let alone the armed Syrian opposition,” he added, referring to the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.
Lavrentiev said Turkey’s actions risked upsetting a delicate religious balance in northern Syria.
In particular, he said the area was populated by Kurds and Arabs who who would not take kindly to their lands being resettled by people who had never lived there, a reference to Turkey’s plan to house refugees from other parts of Syria there.
Lavrentiev confirmed that Russia had brokered an agreement between the Syrian government and Kurdish forces that saw the Kurds cede control of territory to Syrian troops.
Those talks had taken place at Russia’s Hmeimim air base in Syria among other places, he said.
Erdoğan, who has pledged to continue military operations come what may, said Turkey was giving the world a chance to bring peace to the region.
“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union – and the world – should support what Turkey is trying to do.”
‘I hope they all do great!’
Earlier, the Syrian army made inroads into Tel Tamer, a town on the strategically important M4 highway that runs east-west around 30 kilometers south of the frontier with Turkey.
State television later showed residents welcoming Syrian forces into the town of Ain Issa, which lies on another part of the highway, hundreds of miles away.
Ain Issa commands the northern advances to Raqqa, the former capital of ISIS’ so-called caliphate, which Kurdish fighters recaptured from the militants two years ago in one of U.S.-led campaign’s biggest victories.
Much of the M4 borders the southern fringe of territory where Turkey aims to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria. Turkey said it had seized the highway.
Trump says he aims to withdraw the U.S. from “endless” wars in the Middle East.
“Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte,” Trump wrote on Twitter earlier on Oct. 14.
“I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!” he added.
Senior Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said that they were “forced to explore another option” after the U.S. pullout.
“After the Americans abandoned the region and gave the green light for the Turkish attack, we were forced to explore another option, which is talks with Damascus and Moscow to find a way out and thwart these Turkish attacks,” he said.
Jia Kurd described the new arrangement with Assad’s forces as a “preliminary military agreement”, and said political aspects would be discussed later.
It remains to be seen how the Kurds will be treated now. Kurdish militants began establishing autonomous rule in Syria’s northeast early in its eight-year-old war, benefiting from diversions of Assad’s military to fight elsewhere. Assad aims to restore his government’s authority throughout the entire country.
Senior Kurdish politician Aldar Xelil called the pact with Damascus “an emergency measure.”
“The priority now is protecting the border’s security from the Turkish danger.”
Soldier, two civilians killed in YPG attacks
Also on Oct. 15, a Turkish soldier and two civilians were killed in separate incidents.
A soldier was killed and eight others were wounded in an attack from Manbij, which Turkey’s defense ministry had said was carried out by Kurdish fighters in the region.
On the same day, two people were killed and 12 others were wounded when YPG militants launched a mortar attack in the Kızıltepe district of the southeastern province of Mardin.