US forces say Turkey deliberately 'bracketing' American troops with artillery fire in Syria

AMMAN, JORDAN: Turkish forces who launched multiple artillery rounds near a US Special Operations outpost in north-eastern Syria have known for months that Americans were there, according to four current and former US officials, raising questions whether Turkey is trying to push American troops farther from the border.

The claims came as video emerged that Turkish-backed militants had killed at least two Kurdish prisoners and Turkey's military said it captured a key Syrian border town under heavy bombardment in its most significant gain since an offensive against Kurdish fighters began four days ago.

Smoke rises over the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar on October 12, 2019 in Ceylanpinar, Turkey.

In the video and according to a fighter who said he witnessed the killings, two of the fighters fire bullets at close range into the man lying on the side of the road with his hands tied behind his back, apparently to make sure he is dead. The other prisoner appears in the video alive and wearing a military uniform, but he is missing from the militant group's later social media posts about its captives.

"The guy in the military outfit was neutralized," said Al-Harith Rabah, a media activist with the rebel group who was at the scene.

The bombing incident occurred on a hilltop base overlooking the town of Kobane where Turkey continues an operation launched Tuesday against Syrian Kurds, some of whom the United States has partnered with for years in its campaign against the Islamic State. The incursion has focused on an area 100 kilometres to the west of Kobane, but US officials believe Turkey has long-term aspirations to control a much larger swath of Syria.

The rounds landed within a few hundred yards of the base on Mistenur Hill, US officials said. Navy Capt. Brook DeWalt, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement that the US troops "came under artillery fire" but were unharmed and that there was an explosion.

"The US demands that Turkey avoid actions that could result in immediate defensive action," DeWalt said.

In a statement issued Friday, Turkey's Defense Ministry said its troops had not fired on the Americans and were acting "in self-defense" after one of their border posts was attacked.

But the situation, first reported by Newsweek, was more serious than characterized Friday, several officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

One Army officer who has deployed to northeastern Syria and has knowledge of the situation said that multiple rounds of 155mm fire were launched from Turkey's side of the border and that they had a "bracketing effect" in which shells landed on both sides of the US outpost.

A Turkish military armoured vehicle fires towards the Syrian town of Tal Abyad from the Turkish side of the border on October 12, 2019 in Akcakale, Turkey.

"That's an area weapon," the officer said, referring to the effects the rounds have. "That's not something we ever would have done to a partner force."

The officer said that Turkey knew there were Americans on the hill and that it had to be deliberate. The service members vacated the outpost after the incident but returned on Saturday, according to a US official and images circulating on social media.

"We had been there for months, and it is the most clearly defined position in that entire area," the officer said.

Brett McGurk, a former special envoy for both the Obama and Trump administrations in the campaign against the Islamic State, raised concerns about the incident on Friday, saying on Twitter that the United States had declared the position to Turkey.

"This was not a mistake," he said.

McGurk, who often collaborated with the US military in Syria before resigning his position in December, emphasized the increasing risks to Americans throughout Syria in an email Saturday.

"Turkey wants us off the the entire border region to a depth of 30 kilometers," he said. "Based on all the facts available, these were warning fires on a known location, not inadvertent rounds."

The Turkish capture of key border town Ras Al-Ain was revealed in a statement by the Turkish Defense Ministry on Saturday (local time) while Turkish news channels broadcast images of the town wreathed with plumes of smoke from a barrage of artillery fire.

Syrian rebel factions operating under the banner of the Turkish-forged Syrian National Army released video of their fighters spraying machine gun fire down a dirt-covered thoroughfare near Ras Al-Ain's eastern entrance. Other pictures purported to show them inside the town's neighborhoods, tearing down signs for the Kurdish military force, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, and commandeering a Humvee the US had supplied to the Kurds. But a spokesman for one of the factions said the rebels had yet to take control of the whole town.

Breaching Ras Al-Ain, one of the two initial primary targets of the Turkish offensive, now in its fourth day, comes amid an increasing tempo of attacks despite worldwide condemnation of Ankara.

The takeover also injected further instability in Syria's internecine civil war, which began in 2011 and has since devolved into a multi-front proxy conflict with sectarian-tinged bloodshed.

A rebel group fighting under the Syrian National Army banner said it had momentarily cut off part of the M4 highway, the main east-west artery running through the Kurds' enclave to the Syrian-Iraqi border. The Syrian Democratic Forces later said they had reclaimed the area.

Since the assault began on Wednesday, 40 civilians have been killed in northeast Syria, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor of violence in the country, and aid groups report more than 100,000 people have been forced to abandon their homes. The Kurdish-led administration put the number of displaced people at double that figure.

An additional three civilians were reported killed on Saturday on the Turkish side of the border from Kurd shelling and rocket fire, Turkish authorities said, bringing the civilian death toll there during the operation to 10.

The offensive began earlier this week after President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of US troops from the border area, in effect giving his blessing for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to rout the Kurdish militiamen, who had served as the main fighting force on behalf of the US in its mission to defeat Islamic State militants in Syria. Turkey, for its part, considers them a terrorist group related to Kurdish guerrillas locked in a decades-long insurgency against Ankara.

The Turks aim to establish a 30-kilometre strip of territory along its 910-kilometre border with Syria where it will relocate the 3.6 million Syrian refugees still in Turkish territories.

The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times 

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