BEIRUT—Renewed clashes between Kurdish and Turkish forces tested a shaky cease-fire in northern Syria on Friday, as the Russia-backed Syrian government moved troops into the area in part of its efforts to reclaim territory it ceded during the eight-year war.
meanwhile, said the U.S. would reinforce its defense of oil fields in northeastern Syria, as America shifts away from President Trump’s earlier planned full troop withdrawal from the region.
Speaking at a press conference after meetings in Brussels, Mr. Esper said the deployments would include some mechanized forces—a classification that includes tanks, artillery, armored vehicles and other heavy equipment.
The moves are the latest indication that several players are pushing to exert control in northern Syria after the sudden U.S. decision this month to withdraw roughly 1,000 troops who supported the Kurds in the fight against Islamic State.
Since then, Russia has consolidated its role as the main power broker in the country, while the U.S. has announced several new plans, confusing allies.
The Syrian oil fields are controlled by the Kurds, though there are U.S. troops at several of them. Maintaining troops at the sites would help preserve some U.S. leverage in the region, giving Washington a foothold to counter Syrian President
as well as Russia, which has contracts for the oil fields.
Following a pact struck between Ankara and Moscow this week, Turkish forces suspended a military campaign against the Kurds, whom Ankara regards as a terrorist threat, on Wednesday, giving Kurdish fighters 150 hours to leave a 20-mile-deep belt that Turkey calls a safe zone.
Nonetheless, since Thursday morning, Turkey and its local allies have been conducting a ground assault including artillery shelling on several border villages, forcing thousands of civilians to flee, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said.
Turkey didn’t comment on the claim, but accused the Kurds of targeting its forces. The Turkish presidency’s press office said five Turkish soldiers were injured Thursday.
The agreement between Russia and Turkey divides up oversight over the border area between the two countries.
As Russia is a key backer of Mr. Assad’s regime, the U.S. pullout could allow government forces to reconstitute in some areas currently under control of the Kurds, who are seeking protection after the exit of the U.S.
Up to 1,300 Syrian government forces and at least 160 vehicles arrived Thursday to the area around the town of Kobani, located on the Turkish border, according to the Rojava Information Center, a media activist network.
Turkish drones attacked southeast of the border town of Ras al-Ain on Thursday and Friday, killing at least one SDF fighter, according to David Eubank, a U.S. humanitarian worker volunteering with the Kurdish-led forces.
“These Turkish airstrikes have not stopped any day during this so-called cease-fire, along with the Free Syrian Army, they attacked all day yesterday from noon until night,” Mr. Eubank said, referring to Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.
Eight Turkish-backed troops and three SDF fighters were killed Friday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an independent monitoring group. Three nurses working with an ambulance team were killed by Turkish-backed rebels, and their bodies discovered in a water sewage system on Thursday, the Kurdish Red Crescent said.
Under the Turkey-Russia agreement, Russian and Syrian security forces would oversee the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters, some of whom have already started to leave, from the safe zone and conduct joint patrols in parts of the area.
On Friday, the Russian Defense Ministry said it has sent around 300 more military police officers from Chechnya to the Syrian-Turkish border area.
In addition to assisting in the withdrawal of Kurdish units, they will “ensure security, maintain order and patrol assigned areas,” the ministry said, according to Russian state-controlled news agency TASS.
The movements by Turkish, Russian and Syrian forces present a challenge to U.S. objectives. The Russia-Turkey agreement effectively supplants a “safe zone” agreement reached between Vice President
and Turkish President
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
on Oct. 17, which didn’t specify boundaries. But U.S. officials have said it encompasses the area where Turkey first mounted its assault, a 75-mile strip along the border.
Any effort by Turkey to push beyond that area would risk U.S. sanctions, administration officials have said.
Turkey’s subsequent safe zone agreement with Russia covers much of the rest of the border, making for a 300-mile safe zone. Confirmation of Turkish fighting in the area covered by the Russia-Turkey pact could put Ankara in violation of the U.S.-Turkey pact.
U.S. officials said Thursday the White House is considering leaving about 500 American troops in northeast Syria. In his press conference after meetings with North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers, Mr. Esper said troops would be based around the Syrian city of Deir Ezzour. Russian and Syrian forces are stationed in a different part of the area.
Since Saturday, the Pentagon has announced several plans for how it would conduct its campaign against Islamic State. Mr. Esper had said that all troops based in northeast Syria would leave and the campaign against Islamic State, or ISIS, would move to western Iraq. After Iraqi officials said U.S. troops couldn’t say in their country, Mr. Esper said their move to Iraq was transitory.
On Friday, Mr. Esper shifted again and said the U.S. military “will maintain a reduced presence in Syria to deny ISIS access to oil revenue as we position for the next phase of the defeat ISIS campaign.” He also said that defeating Islamic State remained a “core mission.”
The defense chief declined to say whether the Pentagon had presented Mr. Trump with the plans.
The changing plans have resulted from a Trump administration policy-making process that hasn’t included top administration experts and has drawn bipartisan congressional criticism, including in an overwhelmingly negative House vote, after U.S. troops were ordered out of Syria.
The idea of protecting Syrian oil fields controlled by Kurds was presented to Mr. Trump last week by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who has opposed the troop withdrawal.
However, U.S. forces have moved in the past to keep other powers away from Syrian resources controlled by Kurds. Last year, U.S. airstrikes repelled attempts by pro-Syrian regime forces, including Russians who were part of a private military force known as the Wagner Group.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister
criticized Washington, saying U.S. plans to keep some troops in Syria could complicate the Moscow-Ankara agreement.
The agreement “shouldn’t tempt anyone to once again re-format or change [their plans],” Mr. Ryabkov told Russian journalists. “We have certain concerns about the often-changing signals coming from Washington about its plans and intentions in relation to Syria.”
The U.S. decision to largely leave Syria dominated NATO talks. Frustrated allies worry that the U.S. withdrawal and the Turkish incursion could allow Islamic State to make a comeback, undermining European security and setting off another wave of migration. The deal between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member, has created fissures within the alliance.
Kurdish fighters who had been backed by the U.S. in fighting Islamic State called the U.S. decision an abandonment.
Mr. Erdogan said Thursday that the U.S. should hand over Mazloum Abdi, the leader of the SDF.
“The U.S. should hand this man to us,” Mr. Erdogan said in remarks broadcast by Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT, adding that he had instructed his justice minister to take the necessary steps for an extradition.
—Nazih Osseiran and Michael R. Gordon contributed to this article.
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