Syrian forces enter key border town, blocking Turkish plans

SYRIA : Syrian forces on Wednesday night rolled into the strategic border town of Kobani, blocking one path for the Turkish military to establish a “safe zone” free of Syrian Kurdish fighters along the frontier as part of its week-old offensive.

The seizure of Kobani by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad also pointed to a dramatic shift in northeastern Syria: The town was where the United States military and Kurdish fighters first united to defeat the Islamic State group four years ago and holds powerful symbolism for Syrian Kurds and their ambitions of self-rule.

The convoys of government forces drove into Kobani after dark, a resident said. The resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, was one of the few remaining amid fears of a Turkish attack on the town. Syria’s state-run media confirmed its troops entered the town.

Syria’s presence in Kobani puts a firm limit on Turkish ambitions in its offensive. The town lies between a Turkish-controlled enclave farther west and smaller areas to the east that Turkey seized in the past week.

Turkey had talked of creating a 30-kilometer (19-mile) deep “safe zone,” driving out Kurdish fighters from the border region. Turkish forces had shelled Kobani in recent days as part of the offensive but had not advanced ground troops on it.

The battle for Kobani turned the once-nondescript town into a centerpiece of the international campaign against IS, with TV cameras flocking to the Turkish side of the border to track the plumes of smoke rising from explosions in the besieged town. Then-US Secretary of State John Kerry declared it would be “morally very difficult” not to help Kobani.

The IS extremists were finally driven out in early 2015 in their first major defeat, and an alliance was cemented that would eventually bring down the group’s “caliphate” in Syria.

Now the Kurdish authority agreed to allow Damascus to deploy its military in the town and other parts of northeast Syria to protect them from Turkey’s offensive launched after US President Donald Trump pulled back American troops working with the Kurds.

On Wednesday, the US-led coalition said it had vacated a cement factory south of Kobani, which had served as a coordination center with the Kurdish-led forces. Coalition spokesman Col. Myles Caggins said that after troops left the base, two US fighter jets launched pre-planned airstrikes to destroy ammunition that was left behind.

The coalition also said its forces had left Raqqa, the former capital of the Islamic State that was liberated in 2017, and Tabqa, a town to the west.

“Coalition forces continue a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria,” Caggins tweeted.

After being effectively abandoned by the US, the Kurds’ turn to the Syrian government for protection has allowed Damascus’ ally, Russia, to step in as the biggest power player.

Moscow further asserted that role Wednesday, offering to mediate a resolution to the conflict, one day before US Vice President Mike Pence was to begin a mission to press Turkey for a cease-fire.

On Monday, Trump imposed limited economic sanctions on Turkey to raise the pressure on Ankara. The move came five days after Trump raised the specter of sanctions in a letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he also said that if the Turkish leader invaded Syria he would be remembered as a “devil.” Trump told Erdogan he wouldn’t want to be responsible for “slaughtering thousands of people,” and warned, “don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”

Erdogan defied the sanctions, saying the only way its military offensive would end was if Syrian Kurdish fighters leave a designated border area.

Erdogan also said he had “no problem” accepting an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Russia soon to discuss Syria. But he threw into doubt a planned Nov. 13 meeting with Trump, citing anger over the sanctions that Washington imposed Monday on the NATO ally