Members of Syrian National Army, known as Free Syrian Army, wave as they drive to cross into Syria near the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 10, 2019. Photograph:( Reuters )
Outgunned and without US protection, the autonomous Kurds in northeastern Syria had few other options to stop the rapid advance of Turkish troops and their Syrian proxies
The Syrian regime sent troops towards the Turkish border on Monday to contain Ankara's deadly offensive against the Kurds, stepping in for US forces due to begin a controversial withdrawal.
Outgunned and without US protection, the autonomous Kurds in northeastern Syria had few other options to stop the rapid advance of Turkish troops and their Syrian proxies.
Turkey wants to create a roughly 30-kilometre (20-mile) buffer zone along its border to keep Kurdish forces at bay and also to send back some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it hosts.
The United States and its partners, who spent years fighting alongside the Kurds against the Islamic State group in Syria before deserting them, have condemned the Turkish invasion, but their threats of sanctions have failed to stop it.
Washington says that it is planning to pull out 1,000 troops -- almost the entire ground force -- from Syria's north, in a move welcomed Monday by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as "a positive approach."
The chaos in the areas targeted in the six-day-old Turkish assault has already led to the escape of around 800 foreign women and children linked to IS from a Kurdish-run camp, Kurdish authorities said.
The Kurds had repeatedly warned of that scenario when Western countries refused to repatriate their IS-linked nationals and when US President Donald Trump made it clear he wanted to end the US military presence.
But Trump on Monday said the Kurds "may be releasing" IS prisoners to keep the US involved in Syria.
Wasting no time to fill the void, Moscow -- already the top broker in Syria -- clinched a deal between the Kurds and Damascus, whose ties had been icy since the minority threw its lot with Washington and unilaterally declared self-rule.
"In order to prevent and confront this aggression, an agreement has been reached with the Syrian government," the Kurdish administration said in a statement late Sunday.
In an editorial published in Foreign Policy magazine, the head of the main Kurdish force wrote: "If we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people."
By Monday morning, Syrian government forces were already moving to within several kilometres (miles) of the border, AFP correspondents on the ground said.
Residents around the town of Tall Tamr welcomed regime forces with cheers and Syrian state television showed some of them waving national flags and portraits of President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian troops also deployed in the areas of Tabqa and Ain Issa in the northern province of Raqa, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor.
According to a newspaper close to the Damascus regime, Syrian forces were also expected to deploy in the areas of Manbij and the border town of Kobane.
The main remaining flashpoint along the border was the town of Ras al-Ain, where Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have put up stiff resistance against Turkish air strikes and shelling for almost a week.
"There is a large tunnel network under the town" said Abou Bassam, a Syrian rebel commander fighting with Ankara's forces.
The SDF "are moving swiftly, mostly underground, and all buildings in Ras al Ain have trenches" he told AFP.
According to Observatory, the Turkish attack -- which uses Syrian proxies on the ground -- has already left 128 SDF fighters and 69 civilians dead.
The United Nations says 130,000 people have been displaced.
On the Turkish side, four soldiers and 18 civilians have been confirmed killed in six days, either in fighting or from Kurdish cross-border fire, according to Turkish sources.
The Observatory put the number of pro-Turkish Syrian forces killed in the offensive at 94.
An internal document circulated by the Kurdish administration on Monday, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, stressed the deal with Damascus was purely of a military nature and did not affect the work of the semi-autonomous institutions.
But the de-facto statelet the Kurdish administration had set up in northeastern Syria has fast unravelled in recent days, with its forces losing control of a 120-kilometre-long segment of the border.
The area that is now under the control of Turkey and its proxies is ethnically Arab-dominated and some residents welcomed Turkish-backed forces.
Kurdish officials and residents alike in northeastern Syria have expressed outrage at what they call a US betrayal that shortchanges the sacrifices made in the fight against IS.
Since 2014, the SDF have been the US-led anti-IS coalition's main partner on the ground in Syria, spearheading some key battles on the way to eliminating the jihadists' self-proclaimed "caliphate" earlier this year.
"The United States has lost its defeat mechanism against the Islamic State," the Institute for the Study of War wrote in a brief.
"It took years for the US to realise that the SDF were the only capable partners. They will not partner with us again," it said.