Risk of clash with Assad rises as Turkish forces advance on Syrian town

Turkish forces are battling Kurdish-led groups for control of a strategic northeast Syrian town, despite deals Turkey struck with the United States and Russia to halt its military operation, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Intense fighting over Tel Tamr has raised the risk of a confrontation with Syrian government forces, and has led to accusations that Turkey is trying to extend the area under its direct control, the U.S. newspaper said.

“Fighting intensified over the weekend, with Turkish troops reaching the eastern side of Tel Tamr, the Assad regime sending reinforcements to shore up Kurdish positions, and U.S. officials saying a U.S. convoy witnessed artillery strikes landing close to its position,” it said.

Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Oct. 9, halting its operation nine days later after securing separate deals with the United States and Russia to ensure the Kurdish forces, which it views as terrorists, are removed from areas near its borders.

The deal with Washington gave Turkey direct control of a 32-km deep zone running 112-km between the border towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. A subsequent deal with Moscow confirmed Turkey’s control of the area and set out terms to remove the Kurdish-led forces from remaining territories between the River Euphrates and the border with Iraq. The Turkish presence in these areas was to be limited to a narrow strip running south of the border.

The deal with Moscow also brought Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces back to the Turkish border for the first time in years, after the SDF turned to the Damascus government to help them repel the Turkish advance after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Tel Tamr lies on the crucial M4 highway, which traverses the north of Syria and is seen as vital by Damascus. Though it lies outside Turkey’s zone of direct control, a map published by the Russian Defence Ministry on Sunday showed that Turkish troops had advanced to the edge of the town, WSJ said.

Turkish Presidency Spokesman İbrahim Kalın said Kurdish forces had fired on Turkish forces from Tel Tamr and denied any intention to seize the town.

But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said Syrian rebel groups backed by Turkey had advanced to villages around Tel Tamr and areas south of the M4 highway, clashing with the SDF.

On Sunday, the international aid organisation Free Burma Rangers said one of its workers had been killed and another wounded in a Turkish drone strike.

Meanwhile, Assad’s government continued sending forces to reinforce Tel Tamr and other nearby areas, WSJ quoted Syrian state news outlets as saying.

Turkey cut its relations with Damascus in 2012, a year after the Syrian conflict started, instead backing opposition groups that sought to topple Assad.

But WSJ quoted Turkish officials as saying, “Ankara’s deepening military cooperation with Russia, the Syrian president’s main backer, will force the Turkish government to renew direct contact with Damascus.”