ANKARA: Syrian army troops clashed with Turkish forces near the border town of Ras al Ain on Wednesday, Syrian state media reported, as Ankara said it reserved the right to launch another cross-border offensive against the Kurdish YPG militia.

Syrian media said Turkish troops had seized villages on the edge of Ras al Ain. Turkish-backed rebels said there had been intermittent clashes between Turkish and Syrian troops in recent days south of the town, which Turkey seized from Syrian Kurdish-led forces earlier this month.

The report underscores the risk that violence in northeast Syria could resume after Ankara struck separate deals with Washington and Moscow to push the YPG at least 30 km south of the border.

As part of Turkey’s deal with Russia, Syrian troops have with the agreement of Kurdish forces headed north to take up positions near the border, a region Damascus has not controlled since early on in the country’s eight-and-a-half-year-old war.

In Ankara, President Tayyip Erdogan told lawmakers from his AK Party that Turkey has information the YPG has not completed its pull-out, despite assurances from Russia on Tuesday that they had left ahead of the deal’s deadline.

“Even though the information in our hands suggests this has not succeeded in a full sense, we will give our response to them after our field assessments,” he said.

Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist organisation because of its links to Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey, and aims establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria cleared of the group.

“If we see that the members of the terrorist organisation have not been moved out of the 30 km, or if attacks continue, no matter from where, we reserve our right to carry out our own operation,” Erdogan said.

The YPG is the main component in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that fought for years alongside US forces to shatter the Syrian half of the “caliphate” declared by IS militants in northeast Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

Turkish-backed forces crossed into northeast Syria on Oct 9 to attack the YPG after President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of US forces there a few days earlier, drawing international condemnation of Ankara.

Trump’s decision has been lambasted in Washington by Democrats and his fellow Republicans alike for abandoning Kurdish fighters who helped rout IS. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted decisively to sanction Turkey, a Nato ally.

Joint Russian-Turkish patrols had been set to begin on Tuesday at a depth of 10 km (6 miles) inside Syria, but Erdogan said they would begin on Friday and at a depth of just 7 km (4 miles), after a Russian delegation held three days of talks in Ankara seeking agreement on cooperation.

“Getting the United States out of Syria was the one big interest Turkey, Russia and Iran had in common,” said Nicholas Danforth, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

“But now Russia’s longstanding support for restoring the Syrian regime’s sovereignty will come into direct conflict with Turkey’s desire to project its interests and territory in northern Syria,” he said.

Kurdish forces urged to join Syrian army

Syria’s army and police on Wednesday called on Kurdish fighters and security forces in northeast Syria to join their ranks following a Turkish cross-border incursion, state media said.

The appeal comes after regime troops deployed along parts of Syria’s northeastern border in a deal with Kurdish authorities to help stave off the Trkish offensive, launched Oct 9.

It is the largest Syrian army deployment in the area since 2012.

A separate ceasefire agreement reached between Ankara and Damascus-backer Moscow last week provided for members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to withdraw from the border and solidified the presence of pro-government forces there.

“The general command of the armed forces is ready to welcome members of SDF units who are willing to join its ranks,” said a Syrian defence ministry statement carried by state news agency SANA.

It said all Syrians, including the Kurdish minority, are confronting “one enemy”.

Syria’s interior ministry said it was willing to provide police services to residents of the northeast, calling on members of the Kurdish internal security services, known as Asayish, to join its ranks, SANA reported.

The Turkish military and its Syrian proxies attacked Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria in early October with the aim of creating a roughly 30-kilometre (20-mile) deep buffer zone along the frontier.

Left in the lurch by a US troop withdrawal from the border area, Kurdish forces turned to the Syrian government for protection.

Damascus forces rushed north and are expected to deploy along much of the border zone, but a 10-kilometre-deep strip is set to be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish troops under their deal.

Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2019