Syrian minister urges Kurds to return to Damascus or face ‘abyss’

Kurds fear that a Turkish offensive in north-eastern Syria will erode their autonomy in the territory they call Rojava

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Syria’s deputy foreign minister has urged the country’s Kurds to rejoin the government after the US appeared to abandon their main ally and endorse a Turkish offensive on their autonomous north-eastern region.

Faisal Mekdad said the Syrian Kurds should rejoin Damascus or be “plunged into the abyss” just hours after the Turkish military said it was prepared for an offensive.

Mr Mekdad's comments, published in the pro-government daily Al Watan on Tuesday, are the first since US President Donald Trump's abrupt decision to stand aside on Syria's north-eastern border with Turkey.

On Tuesday evening, Turkey’s Parliament voted to extend by another year a mandate that allows the government to order cross-border military offensives in Iraq and Syria.

In a show of hands, legislators approved the motion as Turkey said it was ready to carry out a new incursion into Syria.

Ankara has renewed the mandate every year since 2014. It allowed the country to battle Kurdish rebels, ISIS militants and other groups that Turkey considers terrorists in Iraq and Syria.

Mr Trump said he would meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House on November 13.

The Syrian Kurds have reacted angrily to the US move and fear the Turkish offensive will undermine the hard-fought autonomy they gained since 2011 by battling ISIS in the territory they call Rojava.

Kurdish broadcaster Rudaw said an estimated 25,000 fighters were injured during fighting in northern Syria.

“Nobody fights for money, nobody submits his soul for money,” injured Syrian Democratic Forces fighter Goran Kobane told Rudaw.

Mr Kobane was responding to a tweet by Mr Trump that Kurdish troops had been paid “massive amounts of money” to fight ISIS.

Ankara considers the People's Protection Units (YPG) to be the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

But the YPG is the main element of the US-backed SDF, the internationally supported force that has carried out much of the fighting in the campaign to eradicate ISIS from Syria.

There are concerns that with the US withdrawing or moving forces to allow for the Turkish offensive, the SDF will be relocated from camps housing tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and supporters.

That risks leaving the already poorly controlled camps vulnerable to uprisings and escapes.

Without reversing his agreement with Mr Erdogan, Mr Trump on Monday tweeted that he would “obliterate” the Nato ally's economy if it took action that he considered off-limits against America's Kurdish allies.

Mr Trump appeared to back-pedal on Monday's statements, with two tweets declaring "in no way have we abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters".

After issuing another threat to Turkey to refrain from confronting the SDF, he said the US was still helping Kurdish forces with weapons and funding.

But on Tuesday, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said his country would not bow to threats.

“Where Turkey’s security is concerned, we determine our own path but we set our own limits,” Mr Oktay said.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that the UK was "deeply concerned" about a possible Turkish offensive.

Mr Trump earlier claimed that Britain was "thrilled" at the news that the US was standing aside.

On those comments, Mr Johnson's spokesman said US troop movements were a matter for Washington.

A short time later, UK Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East Andrew Murrison repeated the UK's position.

"We have been consistently clear with Turkey that unilateral military action must be avoided as it would destabilise the region and threaten efforts to secure the lasting defeat of Daesh," Mr Murrison said.

The UK, like the US, has a small number of special forces in Syria to support the SDF against ISIS.

On Monday, US defence spokeswoman Carla Gleason said that Ankara was removed from the anti-ISIS coalition's air forces co-ordination system.

And a State Department official told CNN that the US controlled the airspace over north-eastern Syria.

However, it is unclear if this is a move to prevent Turkey from carrying out air strikes against SDF forces or just an attempt by Washington to distance itself from the impending offensive.

While Syrian state TV early on Tuesday aired overnight footage they said showed Turkish artillery strikes in the country’s north-east, Reuters quoted witnesses as saying there was no sign of military activity beginning.

American forces evacuated two observation posts in Tal Abyad and Ras Al Ain on Monday.

But officials played down Mr Trump's claims of a troop withdrawal.

They said only 50 special operation troops were being moved away from the area Turkey is looking to invade to other parts of Kurdish-controlled Syria.