ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey sent more tanks into northern Syria on Thursday and gave Syrian Kurdish forces a week to scale back their presence near the Turkish border, a day after it launched a U.S.-backed cross-border incursion to establish a frontier zone free of the Islamic State group and Kurdish rebels.
Skirmishes broke out between Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, raising the potential for an all-out confrontation between the two American allies that would also jeopardize the fight against the Islamic State group in the volatile area.
Turkey's incursion Wednesday to capture the town of Jarablus was a dramatic escalation of Turkey's role in Syria's war and adds yet another powerhouse force on the ground in an already complicated conflict.
But Ankara's objective went beyond fighting extremists. Turkey is also aiming to contain the expansion by Syria's Kurds, who have used the fight against IS and the chaos of Syria's civil war to seize nearly the entire stretch of territory along Syria's northern border with Turkey.
Above all, Ankara seeks to avoid Kurdish forces linking up their strongholds along the border. The U.S. has backed its NATO ally, sending a stern warning to the Syrian Kurds with whom it has partnered in the fight against IS to stay east of the Euphrates River. The river crosses from Turkey into Syria at Jarablus.
"The U.S. is interested in stopping this from becoming a confrontation between the YPG and Turkey. That would be a huge detriment to the anti-IS campaign," said Chris Kozak, a Syria researcher at the Washington-based Institute of the Study of War, referring to the main U.S.-backed Kurdish faction fighting IS. Turkey accuses the group of links to Kurdish groups waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
Kozak said an open confrontation between Turkey and the Kurds in Syria would undo much of the progress made working with the Kurdish forces against IS in northern Syria. If there are direct clashes, the U.S. would be forced to take sides, he said, and Washington would likely side with its NATO ally, whose air base is used to launch coalition airstrikes against the extremists in Syria and Iraq.
Also, if the Syrian Kurdish forces are distracted in clashes with the Turks and have to shift resources toward front lines with Turkey or with Turkish-backed opposition groups, that "buys (IS) some breathing space," Kozak said.
On Thursday, Turkish officials said Syrian Kurdish forces had started withdrawing east of the Euphrates River. The news was relayed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a telephone conversation with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.
Syrian Kurdish officials contacted by The Associated Press would not confirm or deny that their forces were withdrawing east. Instead, the main Syrian Kurdish faction, the YPG, said its troops had "returned to their bases" after helping liberate the northern Syrian city of Manbij from the Islamic State group earlier this month. Manbij lies west of the Euphrates about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Jarablus, and Ankara has demanded the Kurds hand it over to Syrian rebels and withdraw.
The Kurdish forces' statement said they handed control of the city to a newly-established Manbij Military Council, made up mostly of Arab rebel fighters from the town.
By day break, at least 10 more Turkish tanks crossed into Syria, Turkey's private Dogan news agency reported. An Associated Press journalist saw three armored vehicles cross the border, followed by a heavy construction vehicle. Explosions reverberated across the border, followed by billowing gray smoke.
It remained unclear whether Turkey-backed Syrian rebels would move against IS-held towns or nearby Kurdish-controlled areas, including the town of Manbij.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu agency, reporting from Jarablus, said the Syrian opposition forces were working to secure the town to allow its resident's to return, including defusing explosives inside the town or on roads leading to it. Estimates put the town's population at 25,000.
Turkey's defense minister, Fikri Isik, said Thursday that Turkish forces were securing the area around Jarablus. He said the Turkish-backed operation had two main goals — to secure the Turkish border area and to make sure the Syrian Kurdish forces "are not there."
"It's our right to remain there until" the Ankara-backed Syrian opposition forces take control of the area, Isik said. He said Turkey and the U.S. have agreed that the Syrian Kurdish forces would pull out of the northern area around Jarablus within a week.
"For now, the withdrawal hasn't fully taken place. We are waiting for it and following it," he told the private NTV television station.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition, Col. JD Dorrian, said some members of the force that seized control of Manbij went east of the river, but some remained to secure and clear land mines.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Kurdish forces appeared to be on the move south of the newly captured town of Jarablus, making the potential for all-out confrontation all the more possible overnight. The Kurdish-led group known as the Syria Democratic Forces, or SDF, was advancing south of Jarablus, taking over at least three towns in what appeared to be a push by the Kurdish-led forces to secure Manbij and the river separating it from Jarablus. The advances triggered brief clashes with the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels who had advanced south of Jarablus.
Sharwan Darwish, a spokesperson for the SDF-affiliated Manbij Military Council, said there were no direct confrontations, only warning shots. A Turkish official said he had no immediate comment on the reported clashes.
Meanwhile, U.N. officials said they had received word from Russia that it supports a 48-hour pause in fighting in and around Syria's largest city so that humanitarian aid can be delivered to its increasingly embattled population.
Jan Egeland, who heads up humanitarian aid in the office of the U.N. Syria envoy, said the U.N. now awaits assurances from two rebel groups and written authorization from President Bashar Assad's government before any aid convoys can go through to Aleppo amid an upsurge in fighting that has left the city nearly surrounded by Russian-backed Syrian troops.
Egeland said Russia backs a three-point U.N. plan that is to involve separate road convoys of aid delivered both from Damascus and across the Turkish border through the critical Castello Road artery into Aleppo.
"We are very hopeful that it will be a very short time until we can roll," Egeland told reporters.
El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Mucahit Ceylan in Karkamis, Philip Issa and Zeina Karam in Beirut, and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.