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US preparing to send 150 troops to join border patrol in northeast Syria: Report

A US military convoy takes part in joint patrol with Turkish troops in the Syrian village of al-Hashisha on the outskirts of Tal Abyad town along the border with Turkey on September 8, 2019. (Photo by AFP)

The Pentagon is preparing to send about 150 troops to northeastern Syria to conduct ground patrols with Turkish military forces in a so-called safe zone, the New York Times reports. 

Unnamed US military officials told the paper on Thursday that the final approval of the plan awaits the success of the initial joint ground patrols with Turkish troops in the coming days.

The report said the move is part of an expanding series of military and diplomatic steps Washington has taken in recent weeks to defuse escalating tensions with Ankara over American support for militants from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).

It may also signal another reversal after US President Donald Trump in December ordered a drawdown of American troops in Syria.

Last month, a senior US official told the New York Times that Washington would "provide forces necessary" for joint patrols in northeastern Syria, noting that a few dozen troops are carrying out similar patrols with Turkish soldiers in the northern Syrian city of Manbij.

But the official did not provide any information on whether the forces provided would add to the overall number of US troops in Syria or simply replace troops being sent home after operations in partnership with the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – where the YPG plays as the backbone.

Both US and Turkish officials have reacted cautiously to joint patrols in northeastern Syria, stating that more substantive steps would be required to make significant progress.

On Tuesday, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the United States was stalling attempts to create a so-called safe zone in northeastern Syria, reaffirming that Ankara was ready to act on its own if necessary to push back YPG militants.

“Yes, there are some joint patrols but other than that, the steps that have been taken or the steps that are said to be taken are cosmetic steps,” he told reporters in the capital Ankara.

“We are seeing that the United States is entering a stalling process...and that it is trying get Turkey accustomed to this stalling process,” Cavusoglu added, arguing that Washington's approach has so far served the YPG more than Turkey.

His comments came after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the weekend that Turkey rejected Washington's protection of the YPG, and that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies faced differences “at every step” in the safe zone talks.

Erdogan stated that Turkey would act alone if the safe zone was not established by the end of September.

On September 8, Turkey's Defense Ministry announced the start of the joint US-Turkish ground patrols east of the Euphrates in northeastern Syria in a post published on its official Twitter page, and said the patrols are being supported by unmanned aerial vehicles.

Syria strongly condemned the decision, arguing that the move constitutes a blatant violation of the international law and the Syrian sovereignty.

“The Syrian Arab Republic condemns in the strongest terms the US administration and the Turkish regime for conducting joint patrols in the Syrian al-Jazirah region, which is in flagrant violation of the international law as well as the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria,” an unnamed official source at the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates told Syria’s official news agency SANA on Sunday.

“Syria stresses that this step represents (an act of) aggression in every sense of the word, and is meant to complicate and prolong the Syrian crisis in the wake of the Syrian Arab Army’s achievements in pursuit of remnants of terrorist groups.”

The source said the Syrian Arab Republic, while reiterating its rejection of the so-called safe area, dismisses all projects aimed at undermining the unity and territorial integrity of the country.

The patrols came after Turkey and the US reached an agreement on August 7 over the establishment of a joint operation center in the northern part of Syria, in the wake of Ankara’s threats to launch an operation against YPG militants to push them away from the Turkish border.

Turkey views the YPG as the Syria branch of the homegrown Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militant group, which has been seeking an autonomous Kurdish region in Turkey since 1984.

Turkey expects the creation of a 32-kilometer (20-mile) safe zone in northern Syria, and has stressed that it wants the YPG cleared from the region.

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