The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have said they will look 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 was to reduce tensions near the border with Turkey, but also to prepare for a long fight if Ankara followed through on its threat.
The SDF is largely made up of the YPG, which is the Syrian branch of the PKK, a group that Turkey, the European Union and the United States consider a “terrorist” organization.
“The meeting confirmed the availability of [SDF] coordination forces with Damascus government forces to deal with any possible Turkish incursion and to protect Syrian territories from occupation,” the SDF statement said.
The SDF was previously seen as 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, as well as their Syrian opposition allies.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said in recent weeks that he is planning a major military operation to create a 30km-deep buffer zone inside Syria along the Turkish border.
The proposed military incursion would be the fourth major Turkish operation since 2016, with previous campaigns giving Turkey control of SDF and ISIL (ISIL) territory 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 of a military escalation in Syria ahead of talks between Turkey and Russia scheduled for Wednesday in Ankara.
A spokesman for the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA – formerly known as the Free Syrian Army) said Russia was reinforcing its positions near Tal Rifaat, Manbij, the southern outskirts of Kobane and Ain Issa – all towns within 40 km (25 miles) of the Turkish border.
“Since the announcement of the operation, the Syrian regime and its Iranian militias have mobilized and are sending reinforcements to the YPG,” Major Youssef Hammoud said.
SNA intelligence had spotted Russian helicopters landing at an airbase near Tal Rifaat, he added.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency quoted local sources on Saturday as saying Russia was making deployments in northern Syria to “consolidate its control”, carrying out reconnaissance flights over Tal Rifaat and installing Pantsir-S1 air defense in Qamishli, a border town nearly 400 km further east.
SDF commander Mazloum Abdi said on Sunday that the Syrian government should use its air defense systems against Turkish aircraft and that his forces were “open” to working with Syrian troops to fight Turkey, but said that there was no need to send more forces.
Moscow and Ankara enjoy close ties, and Turkey has sought to mediate talks over Russia’s war in Ukraine, but their support for opposing sides in Syria could test President Vladimir Putin’s relationship with the only member of NATO not to impose sanctions on Russia for the invasion.
The stakes are also high for Erdogan. Without the at least tacit approval of Russia, Assad’s powerful ally in the Syrian conflict, a Turkish offensive would carry an additional risk of casualties. Russia and Turkey have checked each other’s military ambitions at various points in the war in Syria, sometimes 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 exchanges of rockets and artillery have become more frequent over the past two weeks.
Ankara says it must act because Washington and Moscow broke promises to push back the YPG 30 km (18 miles) from the border after a Turkish offensive in 2019. Both powers seeking Turkish support over Ukraine , the conflict could offer him some leverage.
Washington, whose support for the SDF has long been a source of tension in relations with Turkey, has expressed concern, saying any further operation would endanger US troops – who have a presence in Syria – and undermine regional stability.
Russia also said last week that it hoped Turkey would “refrain from actions that could lead to a dangerous deterioration of the already difficult situation in Syria.”
A senior Turkish official said Lavrov would be questioned about intelligence he said indicated Syrian government and Iranian-backed forces were arriving or heading to Tal Rifaat.
“Turkey will do this operation one way or another,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Asked whether Russia was strengthening its positions in northern Syria, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that it is the Syrian armed forces that “reinforce, to a greater or lesser extent, some facilities on their territory”.
The Syrian government does not comment on troop movements, but the pro-government al-Watan newspaper quoted sources in northern Raqqa – near the Turkish border – as saying on Monday that Syrian troops, tanks and heavy weapons deployed over the weekend in response to Turkish moves.
The Turkish official and Hammoud of the SNA said that attacks from areas controlled by the SDF against those under Turkish control and SNA had increased. Hammoud said Turkish forces and SNA are responding.