Turkey masses troops near Kurdish-held Syrian town

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting of a youth organisation founded by his elder son Bilal Erdogan and his friends, in Istanbul Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018. Erdogan said Friday the United States decided to withdraw troops from Syria after he reassured U.S. President Donald Trump that Turkey could eradicate the remnants of Islamic State group from the country with logistical help from Washington.(Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey is massing troops near a town in northern Syria held by a U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led force, a war monitor and Turkish media said Sunday.

The buildup comes even though Turkey said it would delay a promised offensive in eastern Syria in the wake of U.S. decisions to withdraw its troops.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to dislodge the Kurdish fighters, who Turkey views as an extension of the insurgency within its borders. The U.S. had partnered with the Syrian Kurdish militia to drive out the Islamic State group since 2014. But the partnership had soured relations between Ankara and Washington.

Allaying some of Turkey’s fears was a deal reached in June according to which U.S. and Turkish troops would patrol the area around the Syrian town of Manbij. But Ankara says the U.S. and the Kurdish militia didn’t live up to their end of the deal and that it would start an offensive in eastern Syria to drive out the militia. Turkey already has troops in northwestern Syria and has backed Syrian fighters there to clear towns and villages of IS militants and Kurdish fighters.

In a surprise announcement, President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he will withdraw U.S. troops from Syria— a decision that was hailed by Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would delay the eastern Syria offensive and would work on plans to clear out IS from the region.

On Sunday, the Turkish IHA news agency reported that a convoy of Turkish troops — a commando unit — had been sent into Syria overnight.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the reinforcements were sent to the front line with Manbij, where U.S. troops have been based. The Observatory said 50 vehicles crossed into Syria — carrying troops and equipment.

The spokesman for the Kurdish-led Manbij Military Council, Sharfan Darwish, said Turkish reinforcements have arrived in the area. “We are taking necessary measures to defend ourselves if we are attacked,” he said without elaborating.

A spokesman for the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighting group said the continued Turkish and allied forces buildup is to prevent Syrian government troops from taking advantage of the tension in the area to seize territory.

Youssef Hammoud, spokesman for the Syrian opposition fighters, accused the Kurdish militia of reaching out to the Syrian government to replace U.S. troops if they withdraw.

Darwish dismissed the claims as “untrue,” calling them “old accusations” from the rival Syrian groups.

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