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 (19 miles) 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 U.S. forces to shatter the Syrian half of the “caliphate” declared by Islamic State 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 U.S. 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 Islamic State. 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.
Russia has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful international backer, while Turkey has supported rebels who fought for years to overthrow him.
On Tuesday, the Turkey-backed Syrian rebels said they had captured an undisclosed number of Syrian army soldiers near Tel Hawa, in the countryside around Ras al Ain. A spokesman for the rebels said that the YPG had not fully withdrawn from the border area and that a new round of clashes were expected.
Some 300,000 people have been displaced and 120 civilians killed since Turkey’s incursion, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor.
The U.S. House voted 403-16 for a resolution calling on Trump to impose sanctions and other restrictions on Turkey and Turkish officials over its offensive in Syria.
In Geneva, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government condemned what it called the occupation of its land while the Syrian opposition demanded justice at the opening of a U.N.-backed panel meant to usher in reconciliation, political reforms and free and fair elections as a basis for a lasting peace.