Turkey's army edges closer to attacking Kurd stronghold in Syria

A Turkish armoured vehicle on a joint patrol with US forces near the Syrian city of Manbij on Nov 1, 2018. Turkey has sent a convoy of 200 vehicles to reinforce their presence near the city on Dec 23, 2018.
A Turkish armoured vehicle on a joint patrol with US forces near the Syrian city of Manbij on Nov 1, 2018. Turkey has sent a convoy of 200 vehicles to reinforce their presence near the city on Dec 23, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

ANKARA (BLOOMBERG) - Turkey's military deployed hundreds of vehicles and troops in areas surrounding a north-western Syrian town that Ankara has long pushed the United States to clear of Kurdish militant groups, state broadcaster TRT reported on Sunday (Dec 23).

Soldiers in a convoy of around 200 vehicles including howitzers, armoured military personnel carriers and artillery advanced to reinforce the military's presence in areas close to Manbij, TRT said.

The state broadcaster was airing live footage from the outskirts of Manbij, located on the western flank of the Euphrates River that splits northern Syria roughly into two halves.

The town was a source of tension between the US and Turkey because Ankara accused Washington of stalling on a June agreement to push Kurdish forces away from the area.

Sunday's military deployment could mark a rapid change in the dynamics between the two countries after President Donald Trump announced a withdrawal of American forces from Syria following a Dec 14 phone call with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Mr Trump's pullout decision drew cautious optimism from Turkish officials. While indicating an end to American support for Kurdish militant group the YPG, the withdrawal could also pave the way for a power grab by Iran and Russia, the two other key actors in the Syrian civil war.

TRT said on Sunday that the US has already pulled out all of the 300 to 400 soldiers it had in Manbij but Kurdish forces remained in their positions.

 
 

Turkey has long criticised the US for training and arming the YPG, which it says is linked to domestic terrorists it has fought for more than three decades.

Washington has been adamant that its collaboration with the group was "temporary, transactional and tactical".

TRT said the additional troops and military vehicles were sent to reinforce areas that were already in Turkey's sphere of influence thanks to a previous military operation called the Euphrates Shield.

In that campaign, Turkey took over Jarablus as well as areas surrounding it. Jarablus is some 30km away from Manbij.

Sunday's deployment is another sign that Mr Erdogan has managed to become a more central player both in Middle Eastern politics and US foreign policy, capitalising on an American president eager to fulfil promises to extricate troops from quagmires.

Just months earlier, Mr Trump and Mr Erdogan were facing off over new American tariffs and Turkey's refusal to release an American pastor and demands that the US extradite a cleric it believes was behind a failed 2016 coup.

Phone calls to the US Department of Defence and the Central Command seeking comment outside of normal business hours went unanswered. The Department of Defence also did not immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment.