The Latest: Russia, US speak after Moscow warns on Syria
BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on developments in Syria (all times local):
Russia’s top military officer has spoken to his U.S. counterpart after a stern warning from Moscow that it will fire back if the U.S. attacks Syrian government facilities.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Gen. Valery Gerasimov called Gen. Joseph Dunford Tuesday to discuss the situation in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta.
Earlier Tuesday, Gerasimov said Moscow has “reliable information” that the militants in eastern Ghouta are preparing to stage a chemical attack and put the blame on the Syrian government, setting the stage for a U.S. strike.
Gerasimov noted that Russian military officers are present at Syrian facilities and warned that “if a threat to our servicemen emerges the Russian armed forces will take retaliatory measures against both missiles and their carriers.”
Syrian Kurdish officials are denying Turkish statements that a joint U.S.-Turkish force will replace a Kurdish militia deployed in the Syrian town of Manbij.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, claimed that under an agreement with Washington, the Syrian Kurdish militia will leave and Turkish soldiers with U.S. troops will ensure the town’s security.
The U.S. State Department provided no such details. It said Washington and Ankara are committed to working out outstanding issues and that detailed discussions are still underway and still require approval.
Syrian Kurdish officials denied the Turkish reports.
Shervan Darwish, spokesman for the Kurdish-led Manbij Military Council, said members of the militia known as the YPG left the town soon after it was liberated from Islamic State militants in 2016. Darwish says local forces are now in charge in Manbij and work closely with the U.S.-led coalition, including in joint patrols.
Turkey is riled by U.S. support to the YPG, and accuses the U.S. of allegedly not fulfilling a promise to move the Syrian Kurdish fighters in Manbij east of the Euphrates River.
Russia’s top defense official says Russia will respond if the United States launches a missile strike on the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Moscow has been one of the key allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad since it launched a military operation in the country, helping him turn the tide of war in his favor.
Gen. Valery Gerasimov, head of the Russian General Staff, said at a meeting in Moscow on Tuesday that Russia has “reliable information” that the U.S. is preparing to “stage” a chemical weapons attack in eastern Ghouta and blame it on the Syrian government.
Gerasimov says Russia thinks the U.S. in that case might strike Damascus’ government quarter in retaliation.
He says Russia would consider a missile strike on Damascus a threat to the lives of the Russian military who are deployed there and would respond.
The Syrian government says the military has seized control of a district south of the capital Damascus after it was evacuated by militants and civilians.
The government-run Central Military Media says buses and vans carrying more than 1,000 people left for the northern province of Idlib in implementation of a previous agreement between the army and the gunmen who controlled the Qadam district.
They include more than 300 militants from the extremist Ajnad al-Sham group and their families.
The Central Military Media says the army on Tuesday entered the district and took control of points previously held by the gunmen.
The Islamic State group controls two pockets of territory adjacent to Qadam. The CMM says the army also launched raids on IS-held areas in Yarmouk camp and Hajar al-Aswad.
The Turkish foreign minister says Turkey and the United States have reached an agreement on a plan to jointly station Turkish and U.S. forces in the Syrian Kurdish-held town of Manbij.
Washington has not confirmed any such plan — and a small contingent of U.S. forces is already in Manbij.
Turkey is riled by U.S. support to the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, and accuses the U.S. of allegedly not fulfilling a promise to move the Syrian Kurdish fighters in Manbij east of the Euphrates River. Ankara has threatened to expand its current offensive in northern Syria to drive the Syrian Kurds out of Manbij.
Hurriyet newspaper quoted Mevlut Cavusoglu as telling Turkish reporters during a visit to Moscow that the “YPG will leave Manbij, U.S. and Turkish soldiers will joint ensure its security.”
Cavusoglu says he and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would discuss the issue further when they meet in Washington on March 19.
Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish militia group to be “terrorists” while the U.S. has relied on the group in the fight against the Islamic State group.
Russian news agencies say at least 100 civilians have been evacuated from a rebel-held enclave outside the Syrian capital.
The Russian news agencies reported from outside eastern Ghouta on Tuesday morning, saying 100 people have left the area including 20 women and children.
The Syrian government and the Russian military have set up a corridor outside the besieged eastern Ghouta to arrange the evacuation from the area which is home to some 400,000 people.
Syrian government forces have split eastern Ghouta in two amid rapid weekend advances, dealing a major setback to the rebels and threatening to exacerbate an already dire humanitarian situation at the doorstep of Damascus.
Turkey’s military says its troops and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters have begun a siege of the Syrian Kurdish-held northern town of Afrin.
The military said in a brief statement on Tuesday that the siege of Afrin, the main town in the enclave also known as Afrin, had begun Monday. It said the military had taken control of “critical areas” of the town but did not provide details.
Thousands of people had started to flee Afrin on Monday as the Turkish troops got closer to the town, heading toward nearby government-controlled areas.
Turkey launched a military offensive into the border enclave on Jan. 20 to drive out Syrian Kurdish forces that it considers to be “terrorists” and an extension of Kurdish rebels fighting inside Turkey.
The largest rebel group in the besieged suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus has vowed not to leave the area and to continue fighting advancing government forces.
The Army of Islam was responding to some local reports that said it is negotiating with the Syrian government and its Russian backers to leave the area known as eastern Ghouta.
Hamza Bayraqdar, the group’s chief military spokesman, said in a video statement posted online that “our revolutionary ideology does not allow us to sell the blood of the holy warriors who liberated Ghouta.”
Syrian government forces have recently captured more than half of eastern Ghouta and laid a siege on the group’s stronghold of Douma.
Bayraqdar says: “we will stay in Ghouta and defend it.”