It was a snap decision: the US was withdrawing — immediately — from Syria. But nobody could predict just how quickly the vultures would swoop into the rapidly unravelling region. Dangerous foreign forces swooped to fill the void left by the US peacekeepers. President Tayyip Erdogan was the first to move, sweeping in to attack his long-term enemy, the Kurds.

Now many fear he has set off a chain reaction that could engulf the Middle East.

In response to an appeal by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), one of its former enemies — the Moscow-backed Assad regimen — has mobilised.

Syrian people newly displaced by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria, walk between Iraqi Kurdish policemen upon their arrival at the Bardarash camp, north of Mosul, Iraq. Photo / AP
Syrian people newly displaced by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria, walk between Iraqi Kurdish policemen upon their arrival at the Bardarash camp, north of Mosul, Iraq. Photo / AP

Syrian media has been showing footage of President Bashar al-Assad's troops driving north to "confront Turkish aggression on Syrian territory". Seen coming the opposite direction are US-flag festooned special forces vehicles.

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Senior Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party in Syria member Ahmed Suleiman says talks are ongoing at the Russian-controlled Hmeimim air base in northwestern Syria. And an SDF spokesman says its commanders are looking at "all options that could spare our people ethnic cleansing".

But the supreme commander of the SDF has made the plight of his people crystal clear.

"When the whole world failed to support us, the United States extended its hands," Mazloum Abdi writes says in an open appeal to Western media. "We shook hands and appreciated its generous support.

"At Washington's request, we agreed to withdraw our heavy weapons from the border area with Turkey, destroy our defensive fortifications, and pull back our most seasoned fighters. Turkey would never attack us so long as the US government was true to its word with us.

"We are now standing with our chests bare to face the Turkish knives."

The problem is, Russia, Syria and Iran now also have their knives out — and there is nobody left in the region to stop them being used.

And US Vice President Mike Pence, who is travelling with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Turkey in a bid to stop the invasion, is entering a diplomatic minefield where his nation has lost all credibility.

IMPASSIONED APPEAL

The commander-in-chief of the SDF's 70,000 mostly Kurdish militia issued a desperate appeal for help. His people have been left high-and-dry by US President Donald Trump's surprise withdrawal of peacekeeping forces on Wednesday.

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Not only does he face the invading Turkish troops. He must also contend with a resurgent Islamic State.

"I have always told our forces, this war is ours! The jihadi terrorists of the Islamic State came to Syria from all over the world. We are the ones who should fight them, because they have occupied our lands, looted our villages, killed our children, and enslaved our women," Mazloum Abdi says.

Local residents cheer and applaud as a convoy of Turkish forces vehicles is driven into Syria. Photo / AP
Local residents cheer and applaud as a convoy of Turkish forces vehicles is driven into Syria. Photo / AP

His Kurdish people now guard more than 12,000 Islamic State fighters and support their "radicalised' wives and children. Now, with the sudden withdrawal by the United States, priorities have shifted. Dramatically.

"President Donald Trump has been promising for a long time to withdraw US troops," he writes. "We understand and sympathise. Fathers want to see their children laughing on their laps, lovers want to hear the voices of their partners whispering to them, everyone wants to go back to their homes."

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But at what price, he asks?

"We believe in democracy as a core concept, but in light of the invasion by Turkey and the existential threat its attack poses for our people, we may have to reconsider our alliances. The Russians and the Syrian regime have made proposals that could save the lives of millions of people who live under our protection. We do not trust their promises.

"To be honest, it is hard to know whom to trust."

INTO THE BREACH

The Syrian state-run SANA news agency confirmed yesterday Assad loyalist military units had been mobilised and were taking up positions on the northern border.

The US has been pulling out — rapidly.

US military spokesman Colonel Myles B Caggins tweeted overnight: "We are out of Manbij."

Within hours, video was circulating of Moscow-sponsored Wagner Group of mercenaries showing Russian soldiers taking up position in the abandoned Manbij special forces camp.

"They [the US] were here yesterday, we are here today," Russian journalist Oleg Blokhin says in the video. "Now we'll see how they were living and what they were doing."

It's a scenario where former enemies have been forced into each other's arms.

Assad wants to protect his northern territories.

The Kurds who live there now need Assad's protection.

Therefore, they must also accept a Russian and Iranian presence.

Turkey has for decades been fighting what it calls an insurgency by Kurdish groups led by the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). The Kurds say they have been resisting an attack on their culture and attempts to suppress their way of life.

"It's hard to see a party other than Russia at this point that could play the role of orchestrating a settlement," says CEO of International Crisis GroupRob Malley,

PEACE SPRING

To Ankara, the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) — militias established to protect its populations in the mostly lawless north of Syria and Iraq — are "terrorists". These units form the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an organisation that has since 2015 received funding and training from US government agencies.

Unleashed by US President Donald Trump's surprise retreat, Turkish forces insist they are targeting Kurdish terrorists and establishing a "buffer zone".

But Mr Assad isn't happy with the idea of ceding a 32km-deep strip of border territory to Turkish control.

"The aggressive behaviour of the Erdogan regime clearly shows the Turkish expansionist ambitions in the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic and cannot be justified under any pretext," a Syrian government statement reads.

Exactly how much support will be provided to the Kurds and Syrian government army by Moscow remains unclear. As well as hosting discussions at its Syrian airfield, Russia offers military training, tactical and intelligence support, and much of Assad's arms and equipment.

A Turkish police armoured vehicle is driven at the Karkamis border gate at Gaziantep province, southeastern Turkey. Photo / AP
A Turkish police armoured vehicle is driven at the Karkamis border gate at Gaziantep province, southeastern Turkey. Photo / AP

"Everyone who is illegitimately on the territory of any state, in this case Syria, must leave this territory. This applies to all states," Russian President Vladimir Putin told media earlier this week.

This was overnight backed up by Russian Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentyev, who told reporters: "No one is interested" in potential fighting between Syrian government troops and Turkish forces … (Moscow) "is not going to allow it".

DESPERATE DEAL

Amid the chaos of the Syrian Civil war and Islamic State's defeat of Iraqi forces, the Kurdish people have been managing their own affairs now for some five years.

It's a taste of autonomy and freedom they've come to enjoy.

According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Syrian Assad loyalist forces have agreed to protect the Syrian-Kurd towns of Kobani and Manbij.

Kobani won international acclaim as the turning point of the war against Islamic State when its besieged Kurdish militias held-out against overwhelming odds.

But unconfirmed reports suggest the deal will apply to the entirety of Kurdish-occupied northeastern Syria.

In return, the SDK is in the process of handing over control to Assad of several key strategic outposts — such as the Tabqa air base near Raqqa.

The withdrawal of US forces is a victory for Iran, Turkey and Russia.

Now, these states get to fight out their interests on their own.

And it's a fight Israel — which has been actively targeting Iranian forces within Syria — could get dragged into.

So far Ankara's troops have launched a three-prong drive into Syrian territory.

Fighting continues near Manbij, a town west of the Euphrates River that Turkey has long wanted to wrest from Kurdish control. Further east along the border, Kurdish fighters battled trying to retake the town of Ras al-Ayn, which was captured by Turkish forces days earlier.

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson overnight, and the pair agreed NATO forces in the region should "focus their efforts on defeating Daesh and not lose the gains that have been made in recent years."

"Both leaders stressed the value of Turkey as a NATO ally and recognised the role they have played in supporting refugees from the Syrian conflict. But they were clear that the current Turkish operation needed to end," they said in a joint statement.

Erdoğan had earlier rejected offers for mediation with the Kurdish SDF. Instead, he attacked his NATO allies for supporting "terrorists". He also dismissed reports of escaped Islamic State prisoners as "disinformation".

PUTIN HOLDS THE CARDS

Russia's heavily defended Hmeimin air base on the Mediterranean coast is where the talks with the beleaguered Kurdish leaders are taking place. It's also where most of Moscow's senior military commanders in Syria are housed.

From here Moscow controls its pro-Assad operations, mainly consisting of helicopter and combat jet air strikes. But there are also Russian troops and Moscow-backed mercenaries on the front line of supporting President Assad in Syria's civil war.

It's also the home of a "deconfliction centre", a communications hub where Russian, US and NATO seek to avoid unwanted incidents.

But several squadrons of strike aircraft remain ready for action at Hmeimin. It was from here that a Russian Su-24 bomber strayed over the Turkish border in 2015, to be shot-down by a Turkish F-16.

And, just to the south, is the Russian naval base of Tartus. Warships and submarines carrying cruise missiles regularly stage from this facility, the only one Moscow holds in the Mediterranean.

Moscow has invested heavily in Syria. Its oil and gas firms have been given lucrative contracts in return by Assad in return for the military support. And the SDF's continued independence in Eastern Syria has been a significant source of embarrassment.

But relations between Mr Erdoğan and Mr Putin have also seen a dramatic improvement in recent years. Moscow has successfully played "wedge politics" in Turkey by selling its S400 anti-aircraft missile system to Ankara, causing the US to cancel the delivery of its F-35 stealth fighter.

So Moscow, at the moment, is playing both sides carefully: "We are in touch with both the representatives of the Kurdish side and the representatives of the (Turkish) government, and we are encouraging them to start a dialogue to resolve the problems of this part of Syria, including the problems of ensuring security on the Turkish-Syrian border," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

TRUMP ANNOUNCES TURKISH SANCTIONS

The US has called on Turkey to stop the offensive and declare a ceasefire, while European Union countries moved to broaden an arms sale embargo against their easternmost ally.

President Trump has also announced sanctions aimed at restraining the Turks' assault. But these have been widely regarded as impotent.

Mr Trump will send Mr Pence to Ankara as soon as possible in an attempt to begin negotiations over a stop to the fighting. Pence said Trump spoke directly to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who promised not to attack the border town of Kobani.

But Erdogan defended Turkey's offensive in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, calling on the international community to support Turkey's effort to create what it calls a resettlement "safe zone" for refugees in northeast Syria, or "begin admitting refugees."

"Turkey reached its limit," Erdogan wrote in reference to 3.6 million Syrian refugees in his country. He said Turkey's warnings that it would not be able to stop refugee floods into the West without international support "fell on deaf ears."

Speaking to reporters, Mr Ergodan said: "They say 'declare a ceasefire'. We will never declare a ceasefire. They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions."