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story.lead_photo.caption Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday warned President Donald Trump's administration not to "play with fire," lashing out at the U.S. over what he described as its provocative support for autonomy-seeking Kurds in Syria.

"The U.S. should stop playing very dangerous games which could lead to the dismemberment of the Syrian state," Lavrov said Monday at a Middle East conference in Moscow, alongside Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif and a top adviser of Syrian President Bashar Assad. "We are seeing attempts to exploit the Kurds' aspirations."

An armed clash earlier this month, in which U.S. strikes may have killed more than 200 Russian mercenaries attacking American-backed forces, inflamed a standoff between Moscow and Washington in Syria. Russia's Foreign Ministry said it knows of five Russian deaths, and the incident is still being investigated. While the U.S. accepted Russian assurances that it had nothing to do with the failed attack, the clash was the deadliest between citizens of the former foes since the Cold War.

Lavrov dismissed Western criticism of Iran's role and demands for a pullout of Iranian troops and military advisers, saying they've been invited by the government in Damascus.

Zarif said Iran is concerned about a "new wave" of foreign intervention in Syria led by the U.S. after the defeat of the Islamic State. He accused the U.S. of trying to capture Syrian territory by making use of proxies.

After seven years of war, Assad has managed to reassert control over a large part of his country. But the conflict is entering a new phase as outside powers confront one another, with tensions sparked by Iran's growing influence and Turkey's bid to crush Kurdish forces it says are linked to separatists inside its borders.

The U.S. is setting up a 30,000-strong Kurdish-led border protection force in northeast Syria, which Russia and Iran have condemned as an attempt to carve out an American zone of influence.

Turkey is pursuing an offensive against Kurdish fighters in northwest Syria. And Israel this month launched its biggest strikes in Syria since the 1982 Lebanon war after one of its warplanes was shot down in the wake of the destruction of what it said was an Iranian spy drone in Israeli territory.

TURKEY'S WARNING

Turkey warned the Syrian government Monday against entering the Kurdish-controlled enclave in northern Syria where its offensive is underway, saying it would hit back at the troops if their goal is to protect the Kurdish fighters.

The warning sets up a potential clash between Turkish troops and Syrian government forces backed by Russia and Iran, whose deployment would be a first step toward restoring Assad's presence along the border with Turkey.

The warning by the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu came shortly after Syrian state media said pro-government forces would enter the enclave of Afrin "within hours" to "bolster" local forces in confronting Turkey's "aggression" after reaching an agreement with the Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units, which controls Afrin.

Details of the deal were not announced by either side, and Kurdish officials said talks were still underway. By nightfall, no troops had entered Afrin.

Assad's troops have had no presence in Afrin since they pulled out of most of northern Syria in 2012 as nationwide protests against Assad transformed into a civil war. A return to the area, where a mix of regional and international powers have boots on the ground, threatens to further complicate the situation and lead to unwanted confrontations.

Cavusoglu, speaking at a news conference in Amman, Jordan, said Turkey would have no problem if Syrian government forces were entering Afrin to clear the area of People's Protection Units fighters, but that it would strike back if it turns out the deployment was meant to shore up the Kurds against Turkey.

"If the regime is entering to protect the YPG, then no one can stop us, stop Turkey or the Turkish soldiers," Cavusoglu said, using a Kurdish initials for the militia.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag later denied the Syrian state media reports, saying they were "false" and had "not been confirmed by authorities."

Turkey has supported rebels fighting to overthrow Assad throughout the seven-year civil war, but in recent years it has focused more on trying to contain the Kurds.

The Kurdish group has received weapons and training from the U.S. for years and has been Washington's main partner in the war against the Islamic State militant group in Syria.

It was not clear who, exactly, would enter Afrin. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said pro-government fighters known as "popular forces" would deploy to the area.

"The popular forces joining the resistance against Turkish occupation in Afrin comes in the framework of supporting residents as well as defending Syria and its sovereignty," the news agency said. It added that the deployment aims to "frustrate attempts by [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan's regime and its mercenaries of terrorist organizations to occupy the area," referring to Turkish-backed Syrian insurgents.

A Syrian Kurdish official said the Syrian forces will enter Afrin from the Shiite villages of Nubul and Zahraa in Aleppo province.

"The army will deploy in several border areas, in coordination with the People's Protection Units and the Syrian Democratic Forces," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal details of the agreement.

"The army will set up military positions in the border area and the agreement is that the Syrian army and the YPG will defend Syria together," the official said.

The Syrian Democratic Forces is a U.S.-allied group led by the People's Protection Units. It has won a series of major victories against the Islamic State.

The Syrian government and Kurdish fighters have clashed on occasion, and Assad technically opposes the Kurds' demands for autonomy. But they have also indirectly worked together in the past, and Turkey represents a common enemy.

Turkish officials said Erdogan held a telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during which the two discussed Turkey's military offensive in Afrin. The Turkish officials detailed the call on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations, and they did not mention an agreement for government troops to enter Afrin.

They agreed "to closely coordinate the efforts of Russia, Turkey and Iran" in seeking a political resolution to the Syrian conflict, according to a Kremlin statement.

Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition fighters, meanwhile, continued to pound villages in the enclave with artillery, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syria's state media.

The Observatory said Monday's shelling by Turkish troops killed three people, including a child, and that others were wounded.

Elsewhere in Syria, government shelling of the rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus killed at least 30 people, according to opposition activists and paramedics.

The Observatory said airstrikes and shelling killed 44 people. The Syrian Civil Defense, volunteer first responders known as the White Helmets, said 30 people were killed in eastern Ghouta area.

Syrian state TV reported that rebels, in return, fired mortar rounds and rockets at Damascus, wounding eight people.

Information for this article was contributed by Henry Meyer, Dana Khraiche and Selcan Hacaoglu of Bloomberg News; and by Zeina Karam, Bassem Mroue, Albert Aji, Karin Laub and Suzan Fraser of The Associated Press.

Photo by SOURCE: AP, LiveuaMap / The Washington Post
A map showing The fight for territory in Syria

A Section on 02/20/2018

Print Headline: Russian rebukes U.S. over Syria intervention

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