U.S. armored vehicles are deploying in areas in northern Syria along the tense border with Turkey, a few days after a Turkish airstrike that killed 20 U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, a Syrian war monitor and Kurdish activists said Friday.
Footage posted by Syrian activists online showed a convoy of U.S. armored vehicles driving on a rural road in the village of Darbasiyah, a few hundred meters from the Turkish border. Clashes in the area were reported between Turkish and Kurdish forces Wednesday a day after the Turkish airstrike which also destroyed a Kurdish command headquarters.
The Turkish airstrikes, which also wounded 18 members of the U.S.-backed People's Protection Units, or YPG, in Syria were criticized by both the U.S. and Russia. The YPG is a close U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State group but is seen by Ankara as a terrorist group because of its ties to Turkey's Kurdish rebels.
A Kurdish activist in the area, Mustafa Bali, said the deployment began Friday afternoon and is ongoing. He said deployment stretches from the Iraqi border to areas past Darbasiyah in the largely Kurdish part of eastern Syria.
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"The U.S. role has now become more like a buffer force between us and the Turks on all front lines," he said. He said U.S. forces will also deploy as a separation force in areas where the Turkish-backed Syrian fighting forces and the Kurdish forces meet.
It is a message of reassurance for the Kurds and almost a "warning message" to the Turks, he said.
Col. John Dorrian, a U.S. spokesman for the international coalition against IS, declined to comment, saying troop movement is "ongoing." Capt. Jeff Davis would say only that the U.S. routinely operates with partnered forces there, and that the U.S. has had troops through the entirety of those areas.
YPG spokesman Redur Khalil declined to comment on images and footage which appeared online.
Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the deployment seems limited and is aimed to "prevent fighting" between the two sides.
Earlier this year, about 200 Marines rolled into the town of Manbij in northern Syria, a town about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Turkish border, following an earlier conflagration of fighting between Syrian Kurdish troops and Turkish troops. The U.S. deployment in Manbij intentionally puts Americans in the middle of that rivalry, hoping to cool it down.
A YPG-dominated force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces retook Manbij from IS control, and Turkey — with its troops nearby — said it won't allow the town to be under Kurdish control, threatening to move on it. The American presence appears intended to reassure Ankara the Kurds don't hold the town.
But the new deployment puts U.S. troops directly along the border with Turkey, another flashpoint, and immerses Washington into that increasingly hot fight.
Separately, the chief of the international chemical weapons watchdog said on Friday that he has a team of experts ready and willing to travel to the site of this month's deadly nerve gas incident in Syria if their safety can be assured.
"We are willing to go to Khan Sheikhoun and we have undertaken some actions," Ahmet Uzumcu of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons told a small group of reporters in The Hague.
Syrian ally Russia has called for an international investigation into the April 4 attack that killed nearly 90 people. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov this week expressed regret that the OPCW turned down the Syrian government's offers to visit the site of the attack and investigate. Russia has rejected Western accusations that Syrian President Bashar Assad's government was behind the attack.
Uzumcu said that the area of the town of Khan Sheikhoun where the incident happened is controlled by opposition rebels, adding that the watchdog experts will "need to strike some deals with them," such as a temporary ceasefire, to assure the team's safety before it can deploy.
The OPCW has been extremely cautious about sending investigators to Syria since a team of its experts came under attack there in 2014. Uzumcu said the organization is in daily contact with U.N. authorities over the security situation in Syria.
The Syrian president has categorically rejected accusations that his forces were behind the attack, calling the incident an attempt to frame the Syrian government.
Uzumcu is not yet calling the April 4 incident a chemical weapons attack, but he has said that tests by his organization have established beyond doubt that sarin or a similar toxin was used.
Other nations, however, have already labelled it an attack and blamed the Syrian government.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said earlier this week that the attack "bears the signature" of Assad's government and shows it was responsible.
Uzumcu said his organization is not yet in a position to confirm the French findings.
The OPCW's team is already gathering evidence from victims and survivors and testing samples outside Syria. Uzumcu said he expects an initial report to be issued in about 10 days. The initial OPCW investigation will not apportion blame — that is left to a separate investigative mechanism made up of OPCW and U.N. experts.