ISTANBUL — Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad deployed Monday to several key towns across northeastern Syria after a dramatic 11th-hour deal with local Kurdish fighters to ward off a Turkish assault, an advance that promised to alter, yet again, the ever-shifting alliances of the yearslong civil war.

For the first time in years, Syrian government forces arrived in the towns of Tabqa, on the outskirts of Raqqa, and Ain Issa, which served as the headquarters of the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northeast Syria, about 20 miles from the Turkish border. Images published by the official Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA, showed government troops arriving atop pickup trucks and waving Syrian flags.

The swift Syrian advance was set in motion by President Trump’s sudden decision in recent days to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, leaving the Kurdish forces long allied with the United States vulnerable to attack from the Turkish military.

The return of Assad’s forces in the northeast came as part of a surprise agreement with Syrian Kurdish authorities seeking to prevent Turkey and its rebel proxies from seizing swaths of territory amid a Turkish-backed offensive. It also represented a stunning reversal for the Kurdish-led administration and allied Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, which had partnered with the United States to battle the Islamic State militant group in the area.

The deal was made to allow Syrian government forces to take over security in some border areas, according to Syrian Kurdish officials, who said their administration would maintain control of local institutions.

Syria’s government, however, sees the agreement as effectively killing Kurdish ambitions to establish a de facto state in the country’s northeast, said Kamal Jafa, a pro-government military analyst in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. Syria’s government “managed to find a way to re-establish control over one-third of Syria without firing a bullet,” he said. “The key thing is the Syrian army’s intervention has ended the prospect of a de-facto Kurdish state.”

But even as the two sides tussled over the specifics, Turkish-backed forces operating under the Syrian National Army, an umbrella group of rebel factions, announced the start of an operation to retake the northern city of Manbij from the SDF.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had hinted at an imminent offensive Monday, saying that Turkey was “in the process of implementing our decision on the subject of Manbij.”

Turkey had long demanded that the United States expel the SDF from Manbij and complained that a deal struck with Washington to remove the fighters was not being implemented.

Turkey and the United States agreed in December on a plan for the Kurdish-led SDF to withdraw from Manbij, about 25 miles west of the Euphrates River, where a road map envisioned joint U.S.-Turkish patrols in the city. Turkish officials view the Kurdish fighters in Syria as terrorists for their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long war for autonomy inside Turkey.

A U.S. official with knowledge of operations in Syria said Monday that American troops remained in Manbij.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said he did not anticipate significant changes for the U.S. military in Syria on Monday but added that preparations were “underway” to consolidate forces and depart from the country.

“The Turks going in is not good for Manbij,” he said.

Earlier Monday, the official said, U.S. troops communicated with forces loyal to Assad as they advanced toward Manbij. He said the convoy may have included Russian troops or mercenaries, both of which have backed Assad’s forces in their battle against Syria’s rebels.

“They turned them around when we told them we were still in the area,” the U.S. official said of Syrian government troops.

A second U.S. official with knowledge of military operations in Syria said it was likely that Russia, a key ally of Syria’s government, would move into Manbij after U.S. troops leave.

The official denied U.S. forces were planning a handover to the Russians, however, instead saying that the two sides were “de-conflicting” in the city. The term has been used by the Pentagon to define communication between U.S. and Russian forces that are restricted to the communication of positions and plans to improve safety and prevent accidents that would heighten tensions.

The in northeast Syria has become highly unpredictable since Turkey began its offensive last week, hitting towns and cities with artillery and airstrikes while ground troops advanced and captured territory.

As the campaign escalated, aid agencies pulled out of the area, saying they were scaling down or suspending humanitarian operations due to the fighting.

“This is our nightmare scenario. There are tens of thousands of people on the run and we have no way of getting to them,” said Made Ferguson, deputy country director for Syria at Mercy Corps, a U.S.-based aid agency.

Mercy Corps said in a statement Monday that it was suspending all operations in northeastern Syria and evacuating international staff.

“The humanitarian crisis is worsening by the day, and now aid workers are cut off from providing lifesaving assistance to the most vulnerable,” Ferguson said, citing heavy shelling and road closures.

The United Nations has said that as many as 160,000 people, including 70,000 children, have been displaced since the fighting in northeast Syria escalated nearly a week ago. Schools have been converted to shelters for those displaced, according to the World Food Program. In Hasakah province, a water station supplying 400,000 people was knocked out of service as a result of the hostilities.

Of particular concern to the U.N. and other agencies were the thousands of people housed in detention camps across the northeast, including family members of Islamic State militants.

On Sunday, hundreds of relatives of Islamic State fighters escaped a detention camp in Ain Issa after Turkish shellfire hit the area. The U.N. Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs said it had “grave concerns” for the population of the camp, which hosts about 13,000 civilians.

SDF forces guarding al-Hol, a sprawling camp holding some 70,000 people disgorged from the Islamic State’s final scrap of territory, have also pulled back as fighters are diverted to the front lines with Turkey.

“It’s quiet in the camp for now, but we’re all scared of the uncertainty,” said a medic, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to the media. “We thought that America would protect us here. Why are they walking away?”


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