What happened: After striking a deal with the Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Syrian regime forces entered the town of Manbij yesterday, which is located in the area Turkey hopes to create its “safe zone”.
- Manbij sits on the far western area of the 480km corridor along the Syrian-Turkish border that Turkey hopes to control and remove all Kurdish forces. Over the past two years the town was patrolled by US forces, which had a military base in the area.
- Turkey-allied fighters within the Free Syrian Army (FSA) began gathering on Manbij’s outskirts late on Monday, a day after the US announced it was withdrawing its troops from the region. US forces left their base near Manbij yesterday and Russian forces reportedly moved in shortly after.
- On Tuesday, a small unit of Syrian regime soldiers entered the SDF-controlled city of Manbij for the first time since 2012. Videos were circulated on social media that showed regime fighters raising the Syrian flag on buildings in the city’s centre. Assad forces also entered the Kurdish-dominated towns of Hasakah and Qamishli, as well as Tal Tamr, about 12 miles from the Turkish Border, Ein Issa and Tabqa.
- Russia – a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – said its forces were patrolling along the “line of contact” between Syrian and Turkish forces in the area. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, discussed the latest developments in northern Syria in a phone call yesterday. Moscow described the Turkish offensive as “unacceptable”.
- So far, Turkish-backed rebels and the Turkish military have concentrated their efforts on capturing villages and towns between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain. Syrian forces have stayed clear of the area.
Context: Late on Monday, the SDF agreed to allow the Syrian regime to send its forces to the northern border in a bid to halt Turkey’s offensive against them.
- Areas under SDF-control came under heavy Turkish bombardment over the weekend after President Erdogan launched a military campaign to remove Kurdish forces from along the border area. President Erdogan wants to establish a 20-mile deep “safe zone” along Turkey’s border with Syria to the east of the Euphrates river.
- It follows the US decision to pull all its troops from the border area over the “untenable” situation there. Since 2014 the SDF have fought alongside the US in defeating ISIS in Syria.
- In the past five days, Turkish troops and their allies have pushed into northern towns and villages, clashing with the Kurdish fighters over a stretch of 125 miles. The offensive has displaced at least 160,000 people and killed dozens of civilians, according to the UN. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 104 SDF fighters have been killed since the start of the Turkish offensive, while 71 civilians have been killed, including 21 children. Turkish reports put the number of civilian deaths from Kurdish shelling inside Turkey at 18. Six Turkish soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the operation.
- The town of Manbij sits on the M4 highway, is a major commercial route in northern Syria that connects the western port city of Latakia to Aleppo, Raqqa and oil-rich Deir Az Zor in the east.
Looking ahead: Manbij is significant for both the Syrian regime and the Turkish offensive. For Syria, controlling the town and the M4 highway are major steps towards consolidating wider control of the North East. For Turkey, gaining a foothold in the town would mean preventing the SDF from moving back and forth along the Euphrates River, while also connecting a safe zone to other parts seized during Turkey’s two previous military operations into northern Syria.
- At the moment Russian forces are all that is preventing a potential clash between Turkey and Syria and raises the spectre of 700,000 people being displaced from the town.