Turkey pushes ahead with assault on Syria despite US sanctions

Turkey pressed ahead with its offensive in northern Syria on Tuesday despite US sanctions and growing calls for it to stop, while Syria's Russia-backed army moved on the key city of Manbij that was abandoned by US forces in Donald Trump's retreat.
Russian and Syrian flags on military vehicles near Manbij in Syria yesterday. Syrian government forces entered the city, where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey. PHOTO: REUTERS Turkish-backed Syrian fighters heading to Kurd
Russian and Syrian flags on military vehicles near Manbij in Syria yesterday. Syrian government forces entered the city, where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.PHOTO: REUTERS
Russian and Syrian flags on military vehicles near Manbij in Syria yesterday. Syrian government forces entered the city, where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey. PHOTO: REUTERS Turkish-backed Syrian fighters heading to Kurd
Turkish-backed Syrian fighters heading to Kurdish areas in northern Syria yesterday. Turkey said it aims to defeat the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Critics say measures too feeble; Russia-backed Syrian army takes key city abandoned by US forces

MANBIJ • Turkey ignored US sanctions and pressed on with its assault on northern Syria yesterday, while the Russia-backed Syrian army roared into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by US forces.

Accompanied by Reuters journalists, Syrian government forces entered the centre of the city of Manbij, a flashpoint where United States troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.

Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the outskirts of the city, and from a convoy of military vehicles.

US forces announced they had pulled out of the city. "We are out of Manbij," said Colonel Myles B. Caggins, a spokesman for the US-led coalition in Syria. Troops "are executing a deliberate withdrawal from north-east Syria", he added.

A week after reversing US policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington's Syrian allies, US President Donald Trump on Monday announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.

But the measures - mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks - were less robust than financial markets had expected, and Mr Trump's critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.

The lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher US measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did the Turkish bond and stock markets.

The US last Sunday announced that it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Mr Assad's Russia-backed government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.

Mr Trump's pullout ends joint US-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal aimed at persuading Turkey not to invade.

  • 160,000 Number of people who have fled their homes as Turkish forces advanced, according to the United Nations. The Kurdish administration put the number of displaced at 270,000.

Russia-backed Syrian forces moved swiftly to fill the void left by departing Americans from Manbij - west of the Euphrates river - which Turkey has vowed to capture.

Syrian state TV broadcast footage of what it said was government troops entering Manbij yesterday, under their new deal with the Kurds.

A resident inside the city said Syrian troops were on its outskirts. Turkey-backed Syrian fighters said they would continue their advance towards Manbij.

Syrian state media said Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fighters had opened fire on a march organised by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.

Mr Trump has defended his reversal of US policy as part of a plan to withdraw the US from "endless" wars in the Middle East.

 
 
 

But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds - loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground forces in Washington's battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS.

Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said Mr Trump's sanctions were too little, too late. "His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster."

Mr Trump's allies insisted Washington had not given its blessing to the Turkish offensive, and demanded a ceasefire. "The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey's invasion in Syria any further," US Vice-President Mike Pence said. "We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table," he added.

Turkey said it aims to defeat the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey, and to create a "safe zone" where millions of Syrian refugees can be resettled.

The United Nations said 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advanced. The Kurdish administration put the number of displaced at 270,000.

The UN Human Rights office said yesterday that Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Ms Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on the side of a highway last Saturday by gunmen who posted the incident on the Internet.

Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.

The UN Security Council will likely meet today to discuss the latest developments in Syria.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2019, with the headline 'Turkey pushes ahead with assault on Syria despite US sanctions'. Print Edition | Subscribe