US troops arrived back in northeast Syria on Thursday, raising tensions for the Kurds who warn they face mounting pressure to hand control of the area to Assad.
Sources within Syria reported a significant deployment of US troops near the border town of Kobani, as well as several troops and armoured cars moving towards Deir ez-Zor.
Washington announced last week it would send troops back into Syria to guard the oil fields from the Isis, in another U-turn on President Trump’s original promise to “bring soldiers home”.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were left outgunned when Donald Trump initially said that US forces – deployed in the area to support the Kurds in their fight against Isis – would pull back and not intervene in Ankara’s imminent attack. The SDF described the president’s decision as a “stab in the back”, having lost 11,000 of their fighters in the years-long battle.
A ceasefire was then agreed between Ankara and Moscow that ordered SDF troops to withdraw from the border regions as well as joint Russian-Turkish patrols of the area.
The Kurds, forced to turn to Damascus for protection, also signed a military deal with the Syrian government that deployed forces to protect the border. They are expected to stay there under a Russia-brokered ceasefire.
But on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’ (SOHR) Rami Abdurrahman said at least 150 US armoured cars and trucks were seen heading towards the military’s Sarin base near Kobani.
US network NBC, citing US coalition sources, also reported Bradley fighting vehicles, and troops from South Carolina’s 30th Armoured Brigade Combat team, arriving in the oil-rich Deir ez-Zor region.
The final destination of both deployments has yet to be confirmed but the US had been expected to deploy hundreds of troops and tanks to guard oil facilities.
There are added concerns after Mr Trump announced Isis chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed in a US raid in Idlib, Syria.
The change in plan was confirmed in part by US defence secretary Mark Esper last Friday, who admitted that Washington aims to keep a “reduced presence” in Syria.
“We are now taking some actions ... to strengthen our position at Deir ez-Zor, to ensure that we can deny Isis access to the oil fields,” Mr Esper had said.
“We are reinforcing that position, it will include some mechanised forces,” he added.
But the Kurdish-led SDF say they are under increasing pressure to hand over control of the northeast to forces loyal to president Bashar al-Assad.
In a statement on Thursday they said they had turned down Syrian Defence Ministry calls for them to merge with the Syrian national army, saying they want to preserve their autonomy.
SDF commanders separately told The Independent that the regime had been using ongoing Turkish attacks to force the Kurds to also relinquish control of the land.
Kurdish commanders now say that the regime is looking to take back the whole of northeast Syria.
“The regime does not only want us to join the army, but the debate now concerns the independence of the SDF within the Syrian defence system,” a top SDF commander told The Independent.
“The regime is trying to erase all the achievements of our self-administration. It is trying to take advantage of the Turkish attacks to use it pressurise the SDF, and the autonomous Kurdish authorities, to give up its rights,” he added.
Mr Abdurrahman, from the SOHR, said that a different high-ranking SDF commander claimed Syrian government forces had even deliberately withdrawn from the area around Tal Tamer, allowing Turkish-backed Syrian rebels to take at least five villages yesterday.
Tal Tamer, located just 30km from the border, has been on the cusp of the battle frontline and the so-called Turkish safe zone.
“They let Turkish-backed forces take some villages and I was told this was done deliberately to pile pressure on the Kurdish forces to agree to give up control of northeast Syria,” he said.
“I was also told that Russia has delayed launching its patrols along the border for the same reason.”
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