Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters sit together near the border town of Tel Abyad

Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters sit together near the border town of Tel Abyad, Syria, Saturday.

ISTANBUL — Turkish forces advanced on a key Syrian border town Saturday in attempts to seal their first major advance in a campaign to drive back Syrian Kurdish fighters and carve out a Turkish-controlled zone in Syria.

A Turkish capture of Ras al-Ayn in northeast Syria would mark an important gain for Turkey as a foothold to launch further assaults on Syrian Kurdish militias, which Turks consider a threat.

The Syrian Kurds were key in U.S.-led efforts to wipe out the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate and now feel abandoned by the Trump administration.

The Turkish Defense Ministry said that Ras al-Ayn was “brought under control” following clashes with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). But the Kurd fighters denied Turkish troops held the town.

“Ras al-Ayn is resisting and clashes are continuing,” SDF military spokesman, Mervan Qamishlo, said.

A member of the Syrian National Army, an umbrella group of rebel factions allied with Turkey, said his forces were clearing roads inside the town. A resident of Ras al-Ayn, who fled the town earlier this week, said his relatives were still there and that Turkish-backed forces had taken control.

Turkey launched its offensive, known as Operation Peace Spring, earlier this week as part of an effort to route the SDF from the border area. The SDF is allied with the United States in the battle against the Islamic State, whose members remain in Kurdish-run camps and prisons in northeast Syria.

Turkey views the Kurdish fighters as terrorists for their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decadeslong battle for greater autonomy in Turkey.

Turkey has said it intends to press 18 miles into Syrian territory — a goal that seems increasingly difficult as international concern about the offensive grows.

Virtually all of Turkey’s major allies have expressed fears that the Islamic State will re-emerge as a result of the operation, as the Kurdish fighters are called away to the Turkish front. Those worries were brought into sharp relief on Friday, when the SDF said that five Islamic State detainees had escaped from a prison in eastern Syria.

Turkey is advancing into Syria along roughly 80 miles of the shared border, between the Syrian towns of Tal Abyad on the west and Ras al-Ayn in the east, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Pentagon’s top general, said in a press briefing Friday. The flat landscape in that zone favors Turkey’s conventional military in the battle, an analyst said.

But for days, the Syrian Kurds have been able to carry out deadly strikes across the border — into Akcakale, across the border from Tal Abyad, and into Ceylanpinar, the Turkish town that borders Ras al-Ayn. Fire fights have terrorized neighboring towns further east as well, including Qamishli, in Syria, and the Turkish town of Nusaybin, half a mile away.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019