Military Capabilities

Damascus capitalises on US withdrawal from northeastern Syria

18 October 2019

Syrian government troops are seen at Al-Tabqah Air Base, which was previously controlled by Kurdish forces, on 14 October. Source: Syrian Arab News Agency

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has launched a three-pronged move across Kurdish-controlled territory in the northeast of the country in a bid to fill the power vacuum left by the sudden withdrawal of US troops.

The US withdrawal announced by President Donald Trump on 6 October and subsequent Turkish offensive prompted the Syrian Kurds to seek protection from Damascus and Moscow. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced an agreement on 13 October, saying that the SAA would deploy along the Syrian-Kurdish border to help fight Turkish forces and allied rebel groups now known as the Syrian National Army (SNA).

That night an SAA column equipped with T-72 tanks and accompanied by Russian Military Police advanced to the outskirts of Manbij on the western side of the Euphrates to head off a threatened Turkish attempt to capture the town. Syrian troops then moved into Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) on the Turkish border to the north after US troops left on 16 October.

At the same time, another SAA column with eight T-55 and T-62 tanks moved through the second salient of territory the Kurds held on the western side of the Euphrates around Al-Tabqah and proceeded across the river to move to Ayn Issa, 65 km to the north. A column of BM-21 multiple rocket launchers followed. Russian troops in a Gaz Tigr utility vehicle were filmed with this column on 17 October.

A smaller column from the SAA garrison at Al-Hasakah, which had been isolated since the Islamic State took the surrounding territory in 2013-2014, moved to take up positions around the town of Tal Tamr to the northwest. The available imagery indicated that this column was comprised only of infantry with armed SUVs.

The similarly isolated SAA garrison in the eastern border city of Al-Qamishli made no apparent move.

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