BEIRUT — U.S. troops withdrew on Sunday from another town in Syria as Turkish-backed forces pushed deeper inside Syrian territory, seizing positions along a major highway that serves as the U.S. military’s main supply route and cutting off access to U.S. troops further west, according to a U.S. official.

The withdrawal came amid reports that hundreds of Islamic State supporters may have escaped from a camp housing displaced people in the town of Ain Issa, taking advantage of the mayhem that ensued as Turkish artillery pounded the area.

The Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria said in a statement that 785 people affiliated to the Islamic State were among those who got away, escaping from a camp that had housed 12,000 displaced people, mostly women and children.

Around a thousand of those who had been identified as Islamic State supporters, almost half of them foreigners, were housed in a separate section of the camp known as the Annex, which is now “completely empty,” according to an aid worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

The claim that the Islamic State-linked families had escaped could not be independently confirmed, but Kurdish officials and aid groups said thousands of civilians were also leaving, fleeing across fields to escape the shelling.

Aid workers had also been told to evacuate by the U.S. military.

Ain Issa, 20 miles south of the Turkish border, served as the headquarters of the Kurdish led administration in northeast Syria and owes its significance to its position beside the important M4 highway, which runs across northeastern Syria from the Iraqi border.

It is the main supply route in and out of Syria for the 1,000 U.S. troops deployed there, as well as for much of the limited aid that reaches northeastern Syria.

As the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels closed in on Sunday, the small number of U.S. troops based in the town were relocated to other bases in Syria, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the press.

Turkish backed rebels have now set up checkpoints on the highway near Ain Issa, cutting off the U.S. troops in bases to the west, in Manbij and Kobane. Those troops came under Turkish artillery fire Friday night in what some U.S. soldiers suspect was a deliberate attempt to drive them away from the bulk of the U.S. forces further east, Kurdish and U.S. officials said.

It is almost only a matter of time before those troops are pulled back too, said the official.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that Trump had ordered U.S. troops to relocate to the south of Turkey’s attacks against their Kurdish allies, but not to leave Syria. But with their supply lines severed, their Kurdish allies focused on fighting Turkey and not the Islamic State and the region in disarray, the entire U.S. presence in northeast Syria is starting to appear increasingly unsustainable, U.S. officials and analysts say.

So is the international aid effort to assist the tens of thousands of people displaced by the fighting. The M4 highway is also an important conduit for the limited amounts of aid reaching northeast Syria, and with a portion of the highway now under Turkish control, future aid supplies are at risk.

The Kurdish administration said all deliveries of food and medical aid have now been suspended and there were indications that some agencies have begun withdrawing their staff.

According to a U.N. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press, half the aid workers in the SDF-held areas have how evacuated, with others expected to follow. UNICEF and ICRC both said their operations are continuing in the northeast. ICRC said it is still operating a clinic in al-Hol camp, the biggest of the many camps and prisons housing Islamic State families alongside displaced civilians.

Ain Issa is the third town from which U.S. troops have withdrawn since President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would not stand in the way of a Turkish invasion of northeast Syria aimed at pushing U.S.-allied Kurdish-led forces away from the Turkish border. Around 50 troops withdrew on Monday from the border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, which were the first targets of the Turkish advance.

Turkey regards the Syrian Kurdish militia that dominates the SDF as a terrorist organization, because of its affiliation with the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, that has been waging a decades old insurgency against the Turkish government. Turkey’s offensive, however, has drawn almost no international support, leaving Turkey isolated as it presses ahead with the campaign.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking in Istanbul on Sunday, rejected foreign criticism of the Turkish offensive as well as calls for Turkey to negotiate with the Syrian Kurds to end the conflict. “How can you recommend sitting down at the same table with terrorists?” he said, in reference to calls for dialogue by Britain and other governments. He said the operation would continue until the Kurdish-led force is driven back from Turkey’s borders.

“We are not fighting against the Kurds. We are not targeting Kurdish citizens,” Erdogan said, while giving no indication that the operation would end soon. Turkish forces would press 19 miles into Syria, and “until they leave the space we will continue the operation,” he said, referring to the SDF. “We will not let a terrorist state be established in northeast Syria.”


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