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Turkey deploys military reinforcements to Kurdish-held northern Syria

Turkish army soldiers prepare their tanks next to empty shells at a staging area in the outskirts of the village of Sugedigi, Turkey, on the border with Syria, January 22, 2018. (Photo by AP)

Turkey has dispatched military reinforcements to northern Syria, which is held by US-backed Kurdish militants, as American troops prepare to leave the Arab country.

The so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said on Saturday that dozens of Turkish tanks and heavy weapons had been deployed to a region between the cities of Jarabulus and Manbij, both situated in Syria's Aleppo Province.  

"About 35 tanks and other heavy weapons, carried aboard tank carriers, crossed the Jarabulus border crossing in the early evening," SOHR head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

"They headed for an area near the Sajur River, between Jarabulus and Manbij, not far from the front lines where Kurdish fighters of the Manbij Military Council are stationed."

The fresh military build-up comes a few days after President Donald Trump ordered a quick withdrawal of all 2,000 US forces from Syria claiming victory over the Daesh Takfiri terrorist group in the war-stricken state.

Turkey has "cautiously" welcomed the planned withdrawal. According to reports in Turkish media, Trump made the decision to pull US troops out of Syria in a recent phone call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Observers say it appears that the US has chosen to strengthen its alliance with Turkey at the expense of its Kurdish allies in Syria.

Washington has long been supporting the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an anti-Damascus coalition of Kurdish militants, as its most effective partner in Syria.

Ankara, however, views the SDF as a terrorist organization and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been seeking an autonomous Kurdish region since 1984.

On Thursday, Turkish Defense Minister General Hulusi Akar warned that Kurdish militants operating east of the Euphrates River would be "buried in the ditches" they dig.

Over the past two years, Turkey has conducted operations against Kurdish militants in parts of northern Syria that lie west of the Euphrates River. It has not gone east of the river, partly to avoid direct confrontation with US forces.

Last week, however, Erdogan announced plans to start a new military operation in Syria and then decided to delay it after Trump's announcement to withdraw troops.

“Our phone call with President Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials and statements by the United States, have led us to wait a little longer," Erdogan said.

“We have postponed our military operation against the east of the Euphrates river until we see on the ground the result of America’s decision to withdraw from Syria," he noted.

A senior Kurdish politician on Friday called on France to play a larger role in Syria following Trump's decision to withdraw US troops. 

An Elysee Palace official said advisers to French President Emmanuel Macron had assured SDF of their support in a meeting with the group's figures in Paris Friday.

France, a leading member of the US-led coalition, has said it would keep troops in Syria. France’s pronouncement of support came even as the SDF said it would stop its alleged fight against Daesh terrorists.

Turkish officials have not yet reacted to France’s indications of support for Kurdish militants. 

On Friday, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu emphasized that the delay in the operation did not mean that Turkey had given up on future Syria campaigns.

“It doesn't mean that we gave up on our determination to launch operations against the YPG in the future,” he said, referring to the People's Protection Units, the backbone of the SDF.

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