The United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have said that they will turn to the Syrian government for support if Turkey decides to launch a new military operation against them in northern Syria.
The Kurdish-led SDF said after a meeting of its command on Tuesday that its priority is to reduce tension near the border with Turkey, but also prepare for a long fight if Ankara carries out its threat.
The SDF is largely made up of the YPG, which is the Syrian branch of the PKK, a group Turkey, the European Union and the US consider a “terrorist” organisation.
“The meeting confirmed the readiness of [SDF] forces to coordinate with forces of the Damascus government to confront any possible Turkish incursion and to protect Syrian territories against occupation,” the SDF statement said.
The SDF has previously been considered part of the wider Syrian opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, but has grown closer to Damascus in recent years, particularly following the spread of Turkish military forces, along with their allies in the Syrian opposition.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said over the past few weeks that he is planning a major military operation to create a 30km (19-mile) deep buffer zone inside Syria along Turkey’s border.
The proposed military incursion would be the fourth major Turkish operation since 2016, with previous campaigns giving Turkey control of territory from the SDF and ISIL (ISIS) in different areas along its border.
Russian and Syrian government forces appear to be bolstering their presence in northern Syria, after Moscow warned at the weekend against military escalation in Syria, ahead of talks between Turkey and Russia scheduled for Wednesday in Ankara.
A spokesman for the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA – previously known as the Free Syrian Army) said Russia was reinforcing positions near Tal Rifaat, Manbij, the southern outskirts of Kobane, and Ain Issa – all towns within 40km (25 miles) of the Turkish border.
“Since the announcement of the operation, the Syrian regime and its Iranian militias have mobilised and (are) sending reinforcements to the YPG,” Major Youssef Hammoud said.
SNA intelligence had spotted Russian helicopters landing at an air base close to Tal Rifaat, he added.
Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency cited local sources on Saturday as saying Russia was making deployments in north Syria to “consolidate its control”, flying reconnaissance flights over Tal Rifaat and setting up Pantsir-S1 air defence systems in Qamishli, a border town nearly 400km further east.
SDF commander Mazloum Abdi said on Sunday that the Syrian government should use its air defence systems against Turkish planes and that his forces were “open” to working with Syrian troops to fight off Turkey, but said there was no need to send more forces.
Moscow and Ankara have close ties, and Turkey has sought to mediate talks over Russia’s war in Ukraine, but their support for opposing sides in Syria may test President Vladimir Putin’s relations with the only NATO member not to impose sanctions on Russia over the invasion.
The stakes are also high for Erdogan. Without at least tacit approval from Russia, Assad’s powerful ally in the Syria conflict, a Turkish offensive would carry additional risk of casualties. Russia and Turkey have checked each other’s military ambitions at various points in Syria’s war, at times bringing them close to direct confrontation.
There have not yet been signs of a significant Turkish military build-up in the border region, but reports of rocket and artillery exchanges have become more frequent in the past two weeks.
Ankara says it must act because Washington and Moscow broke promises to push the YPG 30km (18 miles) from the border after a 2019 Turkish offensive. With both powers seeking Turkey’s support over Ukraine, the conflict may offer it a degree of leverage.
Washington, whose backing for the SDF has long been a source of strain in ties with Turkey, has voiced concern, saying any new operation would put at risk US troops – which have a presence in Syria – and undermine regional stability.
Russia also said last week it hoped Turkey “refrains from actions which could lead to a dangerous deterioration of the already difficult situation in Syria”.
A senior Turkish official said Lavrov would be asked about intelligence that he said pointed to Syrian government and Iran-backed forces either arriving at Tal Rifaat or heading there.
“Turkey will do this operation one way or another,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Asked whether Russia was strengthening positions in northern Syria, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters it was the Syrian armed forces that “are reinforcing, to a greater or lesser extent, certain facilities on their territory”.
The Syrian government does not comment on troop movements, but the pro-government newspaper al-Watan on Monday cited sources in northern Raqqa – near the Turkish border – as saying Syrian troops, tanks and heavy weaponry deployed over the weekend in response to Turkish moves.
The Turkish official and the SNA’s Hammoud said attacks from SDF-controlled areas against those under Turkish and SNA control had increased. Hammoud said Turkish and SNA forces were responding.