Russia deployed troop reinforcements Wednesday to an area of northern Syria controlled by Kurdish fighters and government troops, residents and a human rights watchdog said, amid fears of a Turkish ground incursion, Agence France-Presse reported.
The move by Damascus ally Moscow comes after Ankara launched air strikes on Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq on Nov. 20, a week after a deadly İstanbul bombing that it blamed on Kurdish militants, who have denied responsibility.
Residents of Tal Rifaat, a Kurdish-held pocket north of Aleppo, told AFP that Russian troop reinforcements had reached the city.
Tal Rifaat lies 15 kilometers (nine miles) south of the border with Turkey. Kurdish forces control the city and surrounding villages, and Russian troops were already present in the area.
Residents said Russian forces had set up roadblocks at a nearby village separating it from positions under the control of Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel proxies.
Turkish proxies control areas surrounding Tal Rifaat from the north, while Russian-backed Syrian troops control zones mostly to the south.
After carrying out a series of airstrikes, Turkey has threatened to launch a ground incursion into northern Syria, including the Tal Rifaat pocket as well as Kobane and Manbij further east.
Kobane and Manbij are under the control of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which include the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), one of the groups Turkey accuses of being behind the İstanbul bombing.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said Russia was also reinforcing its troops at a government-controlled airbase near Tal Rifaat.
The reinforcements could be an attempt “to stop or put off the Turkish operation,” SOHR chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria have called on Russia to dissuade Turkey from launching a ground offensive against them, their commander said on Tuesday.
SOHR said Russian reinforcements had also reached the outskirts of the border city of Kobane.
Russian troops deployed in some Kurdish-controlled border areas of northern Syria following a 2019 agreement that sought to avert a previous Turkish incursion threat.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said last week that Turkey was more determined than ever to secure its border with Syria from attacks by Kurdish fighters, threatening a ground operation “at the most convenient time.”
Since 2016, Turkey has carried out successive operations against Kurdish forces in northern Syria that have installed its proxies in several areas along the border.