Battle Rages in Kurdish-Held Syrian Town Despite Ceasefire

Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters deploy near the town of Ras al-Ayn, Syria, Friday, Oct. 19, 2019. Fighting between Turkey and Kurdish forces continued Friday in Ras al-Ayn despite a U.S.-brokered cease-fire that went into effect overnight.(AP Photo)

CEYLANPINAR, Turkey (AP) — Fighting continued Friday morning in a northeast Syrian border town at the center of the fight between Turkey and Kurdish forces, despite a U.S.-brokered ceasefire that took effect overnight.

Shelling and gunfire could be heard in and around Ras al-Ayn as smoke billowed near the border with Turkey and the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar. The fighting died down by mid-morning while smoke continued to rise.

Elsewhere along the border calm seemed to prevail, with no fighting heard along the border from Ras al-Ayn to Tal Abyad, a Syrian border town about 60 miles to the west.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, reported intermittent clashes in Ras al-Ayn but relative calm elsewhere since Thursday night, when Turkey and the United States agreed to a five-day cease-fire to halt the Turkish offensive against Kurdish-led forces in the region.

The agreement — reached after hours of negotiations in Turkey’s capital of Ankara between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vice President Mike Pence — requires the Kurdish fighters to vacate a swath of territory in Syria along the Turkish border. That arrangement would solidify the position Turkey has gained after days of fighting.

The shelling Friday came even after the commander of Kurdish-led forces in Syria, Mazloum Abdi, told Kurdish TV late on Thursday: “We will do whatever we can for the success of the ceasefire agreement.” But one Kurdish official, Razan Hiddo, declared that the Kurdish people would refuse to live under Turkish occupation.

Kurdish fighters have already been driven out of much, but not all, of a swath of territory that stretches about 60 miles along the middle of the Syrian-Turkish border, between Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad.

But Kurdish forces are still entrenched in Ras al-Ayn, where on Thursday they had been fiercely battling Turkish-backed Syrian fighters trying to take the town. Whether the Kurdish fighters pull out of Ras al-Ayn will be an early test of the accord.

Turkish troops and their allied Syrian fighters launched the offensive two days after President Trump suddenly announced he was withdrawing U.S. troops from the border area.

The Kurds were U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State and came under assault after Trump ordered U.S. troops to pull out. The Kurdish-led forces have since invited the Syrian government’s military, backed by Russia, to deploy there to protect them from Turkey. Syrian troops have already rolled into several key points along the border.

Trump framed the U.S.-brokered ceasefire with Turkey as “a great day for civilization” but its effect was largely to mitigate a foreign policy crisis widely seen to be of his own making.

Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters terrorists because of their links to outlawed Kurdish rebels fighting inside Turkey since the 1980s.

Turkey’s pro-government dominated media hailed the ceasefire agreement as a clear win for Erdogan. “Great Victory” Yeni Safak’s banner headline said. “Turkey got everything it wanted.” Sabah newspaper headlined: “We won both on the field and on the (negotiating) table.”

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