Turkish-backed Syrian rebels advanced into Ras al Ain in Syria’s northeast on Saturday but it was unclear how far they had gone with Turkey saying the town centre had been taken while Kurdish-led forces denied this and said they were counter-attacking.
The battle for Ras al Ain came as Turkey pursued a four-day-old, cross-border offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia despite an outcry from the United States and European Union and warnings of possible sanctions unless Ankara desisted.
Washington said Turkey’s incursion was causing “great harm” in relations with its NATO ally.
The Turkish assault has raised alarm about its humanitarian fall-out. The regional Kurdish-led administration in Syria’s northeast said nearly 200,000 people had been displaced as a result, while the U.N. World Food Programme put the figure at more than 100,000 in the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al Ain.
Turkey began its onslaught against the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as a terrorist group, after U.S. President Donald Trump spoke by phone on Sunday with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and withdrew some U.S. troops backing Kurdish forces.
“The (Syrian rebel) national army took control of (Ras al Ain) town centre this morning,” a senior Turkish security official said. “Inspections are being conducted in residential areas. Mine and booby trap searches are being carried out.”
Turkey’s Defence Ministry subsequently stated on Twitter that Ras al Ain had been brought under control, with officials posting photos showing deserted streets and Syrian rebels standing on Kurdish militia flags.
But the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in which the YPG comprises the main fighting element, swiftly denied losing the centre of Ras al Ain.
Turkish forces had overnight stepped up their bombardment of Ras al Ain in their incursion, after U.S. troops in the vicinity came under artillery fire from Turkish positions.