DOHUK, IRAQ (REUTERS, NYTIMES) - US troops crossed into Iraq early on Monday (Oct 21), part of a withdrawal from northeast Syria ordered by President Donald Trump that opened the way for Turkish troops to launch an offensive against Kurdish fighters in the area.
A Reuters cameraman saw more than 100 vehicles crossing from the northeast tip of Syria, where Turkey has agreed to pause its offensive for five days under a deal agreed between Washington and Ankara. The truce expires late on Tuesday.
Reuters video images showed armoured vehicles carrying US troops through the Sahela border crossing into Iraq’s northern province of Dohuk.
An Iraqi Kurdish security source also told Reuters that US troops had crossed into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq.
About 30 trailers and Hummers carrying heavier duty equipment crossed, with troops in cars coming through, the source added. A second security source in Mosul also said US troops had crossed into Iraq from Sahela.
Residents threw rocks and potatoes at a US military convoy driving through Qamishli, a major city in Kurdish-held territory.
In video posted online by a local Kurdish news outlet, ANHA Hawar, men hurling potatoes at an armoured vehicle shouted “No America” and “America liar,” in English.
Another group tried to block the convoy’s progress by standing in its path and holding placards of protest. “The Americans are running away like rats,” one man could be heard shouting.
Some Syrian Kurds see the withdrawal as a form of betrayal, since it has enabled Turkish-led forces to invade the area and potentially force Kurds from their ancestral homes.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Saturday that all of the nearly 1,000 troops withdrawing from northern Syria are expected to move to western Iraq to continue the campaign against Islamic State militants and “to help defend Iraq”. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has warned that Ankara will resume its miltary assault in Syria when the deadline expires if the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have not pulled back from its proposed “safe zone” area spanning the border.
Erdogan has also said Turkey will set up a dozen observation posts in the planned “safe zone”. A witness in the region said Turkish forces had already begun establishing two such posts on Sunday, drawing criticism from Iran on Monday.
“We are against Ankara’s establishing of military posts in Syria,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told a weekly news conference broadcast live on state TV.
“The issues should be resolved by diplomatic means ... Syria’s integrity should be respected,” said Mousavi, whose country is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Last Thursday, Turkey agreed in talks with US Vice-President Mike Pence to a five-day pause in an offensive into north-eastern Syria to allow time for the Kurdish fighters to withdraw from a "safe zone" Ankara aims to establish near its border with Syria.
The truce also aimed to ease a crisis triggered by President Donald Trump's abrupt decision this month to withdraw all 1,000 US troops from northern Syria, a move criticised in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of loyal Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside US troops against Islamic State.
Turkey launched its offensive after Trump announced he was withdrawing UStroops from northeastern Syria. Trump’s move was criticised in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside US troops against Islamic State.
However, Trump is now leaning in favour of a new military plan to keep about 200 US troops in eastern Syria near the Iraq border, the New York Times said late on Sunday. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ankara is seeking to set up the “safe zone” as a buffer as it regards the YPG militia, the main component of the SDF, a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey. The YPG has been a close US ally in the fight against Islamic State.
On Sunday, the SDF said they had withdrawn from the border town of Ras al Ain under the US-brokered ceasefire deal, but a spokesman for Turkish-backed Syrian rebels said the withdrawal was not yet complete.
US troops have crossed into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, an Iraqi Kurdish security source told Reuters on Monday. About 30 trailers and Hummers carrying heavier duty equipment crossed, with troops in cars coming through, the source added. A second security source in Mosul also said US troops had crossed into Iraq from Sahela.
The US pullout has also created a vacuum that Russia, Assad’s most powerful backer, has looked to fill. Syrian and Russian forces, invited by Kurdish authorities, last week entered the two border cities of Manbij and Kobani vacated by US troops.
Erdogan has backed rebels fighting to oust Assad in the eight-year Syrian conflict, but has said Turkey had no problem with Syrian government forces deploying near the border if the YPG militia were removed.
At a planned meeting on Tuesday in the Russian city of Sochi, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin will discuss the issue of YPG withdrawal from Manbij and Kobani, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday. While Erdogan and Putin have close ties on defence and energy, Moscow has called the Turkish offensive into Syria“unacceptable” and said it should be limited.