CEYLANPINAR, Turkey (AP) — President Donald Trump did not oppose a deal struck between the Syrian Kurdish-led forces, Russia and the Syrian government in Damascus to protect against a Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria, the commander of the force said as his fighters battled a new push by Ankara-backed fighters to seize a strategic border town.
The commander of the Kurdish-led forces, Mazloum Abdi, said Trump essentially gave the go-ahead for the deal in a phone call Monday.
The Kurds' deal, announced Sunday, came after Trump ordered U.S. troops to step aside as Turkey launched its attack last week. Under the agreement, forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad effectively replace the U.S. troops on the ground in the border areas, with Moscow guaranteeing the deal.
"We told (Trump) that we are contacting the Syrian regime and the Russians in order to protect our country and land," Abdi, better known by his nom de guerre Mazloum Kobani, told a local TV station, Ronahi TV. "He said, 'We are not against that. We support that.'"
Vice President Mike Pence, heading a U.S. delegation that includes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, arrived in Turkey Thursday afternoon, aiming to press Turkey to accept a ceasefire in its offensive. Before their arrival, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien.
But on Wednesday Trump dismissed the very crisis he sent his aides on an emergency mission to douse. Trump said the situation in northern Syria was under control and that the Syrian government was protecting the Kurds.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday again called on Turkey to stop its military offensive in Syria, telling parliament that the offensive "makes tens of thousands, among them thousands of children, flee."
She called the military operation "a humanitarian drama with big geopolitical consequences," strengthening the role of Russia and Iran.
Syria's Kurdish fighters have allied with the United States since 2014 to fight Islamic State militants. Abdi said the priority now is to stop Turkey's invasion.
Abdi said his forces have frozen their activities to counter IS, other than defending themselves against the militants, who he said were taking advantage of the Turkish offensive. He said the militants have attacked prisons where fellow members are jailed and have freed some families of IS members from holding areas in displaced people's camps.
Abdi said his forces will decide what to do with detained IS prisoners and their families.
"The matter is in our hands. We captured them. We are holding them, and we will decide what to do with them. No one else," he told the channel.
Merkel said both the Middle East and Europe are being made to feel insecure because prisoners of the Islamic State are no longer being adequately guarded by Kurdish-led forces. Those forces are diverting their attention to the Turkish invasion.
So far, Syrian troops have deployed in the border town of Kobani, further south and along a main highway to the east.
But fighting for the strategic town of Ras al-Ayn continued, as Turkish-backed fighters make a new push for the town where the Kurdish-led group has put up stiff resistance. An Associated Press journalist on the Turkish side of the border reported heavy shelling into Ras al-Ayn.
An Associated Press journalist said Turkish cross-border artillery fire targeted the town of Ras al-Ayn and areas beyond the town on Thursday. The shelling came despite Turkey’s announcing that it had captured the town three days ago.
An official with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said the town saw "insane bombing" from the air and land as the Turkish-backed fighters launched a three-pronged attack. They advanced slightly in the town but there were "fierce battles," the official said on condition of anonymity to describe operational details.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Turkish-backed forces have encircled Ras al-Ayn.
The SDF official also said Syrian government forces have deployed south of Ras al-Ayn, near Tal Tamr and the highway there, taking a rear position behind the Kurdish forces.
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