Syrian and Russian forces bolstered after Turkey-reported operation, officials say

  • Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in Syria war
  • Any Turkish aggression would affect the Kurdish YPG militia
  • The forces of Russia and Syria are reinforced – Turkish officials
  • Attack could harm regional stability, says US
  • YPG is part of a US-backed alliance against ISIS

AMMAN/ANKARA, June 7 (Reuters) – Russian and Syrian government forces have been reinforced in northern Syria where Turkey could soon launch an offensive against Kurdish fighters, Turkish and Syrian rebel officials said, as Ankara is preparing for talks with Moscow.

President Tayyip Erdogan said two weeks ago that Turkey would launch new military operations in Syria to expand 30 km (20 mile) deep “safe zones” along the border, targeting areas of Tal Rifaat and Manbij and other areas further east.

Russia, which warned at the weekend of a military escalation in northern Syria, is sending Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for talks in Ankara on Wednesday.

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The two countries enjoy close ties and Ankara has sought to mediate talks over Russia’s war in Ukraine, but their support for opposing sides in Syria could test President Vladimir Putin’s relationship with the only member of the not to impose sanctions on Moscow for the invasion.

The stakes are also high for Erdogan. Without the at least tacit approval of Russia, a powerful ally of President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian conflict, a Turkish offensive would entail an additional risk of casualties. Russia and Turkey have checked each other’s military ambitions at various points in the war in Syria, sometimes bringing them close to direct confrontation.

There have not yet been signs of a significant Turkish military build-up in the border region, but reports of exchanges of rockets and artillery have become more frequent over the past two weeks.

Any Turkish operation would attack the Kurdish YPG militia, a key element of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which controls large parts of northern Syria and is seen by Washington as an important ally against Islamic State. Ankara considers it a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

A spokesman for the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) said Russia was reinforcing its positions near Tal Rifaat, Manbij, the southern outskirts of Kobani and Ain Issa – all towns within 40 km ( 25 miles) from the Turkish border. Read more

“Since the announcement of the operation, the Syrian regime and its Iranian militias have mobilized and sent reinforcements to the YPG,” Major Youssef Hammoud told Reuters.

Their intelligence services had spotted Russian helicopters landing at an airbase near Tal Rifaat, he added.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency quoted local sources on Saturday as saying Russia was making deployments in northern Syria to “consolidate its control”, carrying out reconnaissance flights over Tal Rifaat and installing Pantsir-S1 air defense at Qamishli, a border town almost 400 km further east.

SDF commander Mazloum Abdi told Reuters on Sunday that Damascus should use its air defense systems against Turkish aircraft and that his forces were “open” to working with Syrian troops to fight Turkey, but said that there was no need to send more forces. Read more

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Ankara says it must act because Washington and Moscow broke promises to push back the YPG 30 km (18 miles) from the border after a Turkish offensive in 2019. Both powers seeking Turkish support over Ukraine , the conflict could offer him some leverage.

Washington, whose support for the SDF has long been a source of tension in relations with Turkey, has expressed concern, saying any further operation would endanger US troops – who have a presence in Syria – and undermine regional stability.

Russia also said last week that it hoped Turkey would “refrain from actions that could lead to a dangerous deterioration of the already difficult situation in Syria.”

A senior Turkish official said Lavrov would be questioned about intelligence he said indicated Syrian government and Iranian-backed forces were arriving or heading to Tal Rifaat.

“Turkey will do this operation one way or another,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Asked whether Russia was strengthening its positions in northern Syria, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that it is the Syrian armed forces that “reinforce, to a greater or lesser extent, some facilities on their territory”.

The Syrian government does not comment on troop movements, but the pro-government al-Watan newspaper on Monday quoted sources in northern Raqqa – near the Turkish border – as saying Syrian troops, tanks and heavy weapons deployed over the weekend in response to Turkish moves.

The Turkish official and Hammoud of the SNA said that attacks from areas controlled by the SDF against those under Turkish control and SNA had increased. Hammoud said Turkish forces and SNA are responding.

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Additional reporting by Maya Gebeily Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Daren Butler Editing by Dominic Evans and William Maclean

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Sharon P. Juarez