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U.S. to pull out troops as Turkey pushes deeper into north Syria.

Summary: The United States is poised to withdraw some 1,000 troops from northern Syria, its defense secretary said Sunday, after learning that Turkey planned to extend its military incursion against Kurdish militias further south than originally planned.

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: The United States is poised to withdraw some 1,000 troops from northern Syria, its defense secretary said Sunday, after learning that Turkey planned to extend its military incursion against Kurdish militias further south than originally planned.

Another consideration in the decision, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper indicated, was that Washington's Kurdish-led ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces, was looking to make a deal with Russia to counter the Turkish onslaught.

A Syrian Kurdish politician said the SDF and Syrian government were in talks at a Russian air base on how to halt the attack, and Syrian state media said Syrian soldiers were being sent north to confront the offensive.

Outlining Turkey's goals, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the incursion would stretch from Ain al-Arab (known as Kobani in Kurdish) in the west to Hassakeh in the east and extend some 30 km into Syrian territory, "in line with the safe zone map which we declared previously." He told a news conference in Istanbul that the border town of Ras al-Ain was already under Turkish control.

Ankara also said Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces had seized a highway some 30-35 km into Syrian territory, which would sever a major artery linking the Kurdish-run regions of war-torn Syria's north.

An SDF official said clashes were going on along the road.

New reports of civilian casualties also surfaced. A Turkish airstrike in Ras al-Ain killed nine people including five civilians Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said. The SDF said a "civilian convoy" had been targeted.

Turkey's offensive aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main component of the SDF and seen by Ankara as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. But the SDF has also been Washington's key ally in fighting that has dismantled Daesh's (ISIS) "caliphate" in Syria. Ankara's stated aim is to carve out a "safe zone" inside Syria to resettle many of the 3.6 million Syrian war refugees it is hosting. Erdogan has threatened to send them to Europe if the EU does not back his assault.

But the Turkish offensive has triggered international alarm over its large-scale displacements of civilians and, amid the upheaval, a heightened risk of Daesh militants escaping from prisons run by the Kurdish-led authorities.

Some 785 foreigners affiliated with Daesh fled a camp where they were being held in northern Syria after shelling by Turkish forces Sunday, the region's Kurdish-led administration said.

Erdogan dismissed the reports and told the state-run Anadolu news agency that accounts of escapes by Daesh prisoners were "disinformation" aimed at provoking the West.

Turkey now faces threats of possible sanctions from NATO ally the United States unless it calls off the incursion.

Two other NATO allies, Germany and France, have suspended arms exports to Turkey, and French President Emmanuel Macron was convening an emergency defense Cabinet meeting Sunday to discuss options regarding the offensive.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said that Washington was studying "extremely troubling" reports that a Kurdish politician and captured Kurdish fighters were killed by Turkish proxy forces amid the offensive.

More than 130,000 people have been displaced from rural areas around Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain as a result of the fighting, the United Nations said Sunday.

Sunday's word of the planned evacuation of U.S. forces came after U.S. President Donald Trump spoke by telephone with Erdogan a week ago then abruptly shifted policy and withdrew a smaller number of U.S. troops deployed to support Kurdish forces in the campaign against Daesh.

"In the last 24 hours, we learned that [the Turks] likely intend to extend their attack further south than originally planned, and to the west," Esper said in an interview with CBS. "We also have learned in the last 24 hours that the ... SDF are looking to cut a deal, if you will, with the Syrians and the Russians to counterattack against the Turks in the north."

Esper called the situation "untenable" for U.S. forces, saying he spoke with Trump Saturday night and that the president directed the U.S. military to "begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria."

Erdogan told reporters that Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies had besieged Tal Abyad, a key border town west of Ras al-Ain. They later advanced into the center of Tal Abyad where the situation was calm and they were conducting search operations, a Reuters witness said.

Erdogan said Turkish-led forces had killed 440 SDF fighters so far and captured 109 square km of terrain, including 17 villages around Tal Abyad and four villages around Ras al-Ain.

In Akcakale on the Turkish side of the border, around 100 people waved Turkish flags and sounded car horns as they celebrated reports of Turkish-led forces seizing Tal Abyad, a Reuters news team reported.

Along the front lines of Turkey's assault, Turkish forces and Syrian rebels entered Suluk, some 10 kilometers from the border, the Observatory said Sunday.

Turkey's Anadolu news agency said the rebels seized complete control of the town. But an SDF spokesman said its forces repelled the attack and were still in control.

Suluk is southeast of Tal Abyad, one of the two main targets in the incursion, which was bombarded by Turkish howitzers Sunday afternoon, a witness in Akcakale said.

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, known as the National Army, advanced into Ras al-Ain Saturday but by Sunday there were still conflicting reports as to which side was in control.

Broadcaster Al-Mayadeen said Sunday the Syrian army would deploy within 48 hours to the town of Ain al-Arab, which is held by the SDF, and to the nearby town of Manbij, which is controlled by SDF-aligned forces.

The SDF hold large swaths of northern Syria that were once controlled by Daesh.

The SDF has been keeping thousands of Daesh militants in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.

But over the weekend, 785 Daesh-affiliated foreigners escaped the camp at Ain Issa, the region's Kurdish-led administration said in a statement.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Oct 14, 2019
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