Syria Troops, Kurds Advance in North Amid Turkish Warnings

  • Syrian government forces retake thermal power plant in Aleppo
  • Turkey warns Syrian Kurdish groups against territorial gains

Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes extended advances against rebels and Islamic State militants in the country’s north, a group that monitors the war said on Tuesday.

Kurdish forces also made territorial gains, bringing renewed warnings from Turkey that it would intervene “fiercely” if the fighters approached the border.

Government forces on Tuesday retook the thermal power station in eastern Aleppo, a stronghold of Islamic State for the past two years, Rami Abdurrahman, head of the U.K-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said by phone. SOHR also said Kurdish YPG fighters captured the strategic town of Tal Rifaat in the north of the province.

On Monday, troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad recaptured several villages, state-run media reported.

Russia’s entry into Syria’s five-year-old war in support of Assad has swung the fighting in his favor, and sharply escalated tensions with Turkey, which backs Syrian rebels. A cease-fire plan crafted in Munich last week has all but collapsed, and the United Nations’s Syria envoy Staffan De Mistura met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem in Damascus on Tuesday in an effort to put it back on track.

‘Binary Choice’

“The Syrian regime – aided by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah – is doubling down on its strategy of presenting the international community with a binary choice between Assad and Islamic State,” Torbjorn Soltvedt, head of MENA at Verisk Maplecroft, said in an e-mailed report. The fall of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and once a thriving commercial capital, “could effectively spell the end of the Western- and Gulf-backed opposition,” he said.

The latest advances come after Syrian forces ended a three-year siege of two Shiite Muslim villages, Nubul and al-Zahraa, in northern Aleppo earlier this month, cutting the Turkish-backed opposition’s main supply route from Turkey to Aleppo. The strikes have sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing to the Turkish border, and have threatened to escalate Turkish and Saudi Arabian involvement.

Turkey is worried that the growing strength of Syrian Kurds will lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state on its border, fueling the aspirations of its own Kurdish minority to self-rule in the southeast. It has deployed hundreds of tanks and guns on the Syrian border, worried that Syrian Kurdish forces may capture territory that would allow them to link the region they control at Syria’s northwestern edge with Kurdish territory east of the Euphrates River.

Russian Pawns

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned that his country would react “fiercely” if Kurdish YPG forces approach the Syrian border city of Azaz, and accused the associated Kurdish PYD political party of becoming Russian pawns. The government in Ankara considers both Syrian groups to be terrorist organizations linked to the Kurdish PKK in Turkey, which has been warring with Turkish troops since the 1980s and is considered a terrorist group by the Turkish government, U.S. and European Union.

Russia said Tuesday that “several partners” have asked it “not to touch” a 100-kilometer corridor running by Azaz and to leave the area near Turkey. The aim of safeguarding the corridor was to allow a daily supply route for Islamic State, al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and other groups, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement on the ministry’s website.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said he’s “appalled” the Assad regime and its Russian supporters are “still bombing innocent civilians” despite an agreement last week to a cessation of hostilities.

“Russia needs to explain itself, and show through its actions that it is committed to ending the conflict, rather than fueling it,” Hammond said in an e-mailed statement, after airstrikes on Monday struck medical facilities. “Russia’s tactics are making a political settlement -– and therefore the defeat of Da’esh –- even harder to achieve,” he added, using Islamic State’s Arabic acronym.

Five-Year War

The Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 260,000 people and displaced half the population, began with peaceful anti-government protests in 2011 before evolving into a sectarian war pitting predominantly Sunni rebels against Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. It fueled the rise of Islamic State and has drawn in regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as Russia, which entered the conflict more than four months ago.

Russia’s airstrikes have helped to drive back rebel forces in Idlib, Aleppo and other parts of Syria. Government forces and Syrian Kurds separately control most of Aleppo province, according to the SOHR’s Abdurrahman.

Assad cast further doubt on the cease-fire agreement on Monday, saying a truce “doesn’t mean all sides will stop using weapons.”

“This is a narrow understanding,” Assad said during a meeting with Syria’s Bar Association, according to the state-run SANA news agency. “A cease-fire means in the first place preventing terrorists from strengthening their positions. Movement of weapons, ammunition, gear or terrorists should not be allowed.”

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