BEIRUT (AP) — The top generals from Turkey, the United States and Russia met Tuesday in Turkey to discuss mutual suspicions over northern Syria military operations, as Russia’s military announced a two-week long cease-fire between rebels and the government in the suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus.
The Russian military said a cease-fire has been in place since Tuesday, March 6, and will extend until March 20, for the Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus, but activists reported a number of airstrikes and artillery strikes by government forces, killing two civilians.
The White Helmets search-and-rescue group said they dug up the bodies of a child and an adult from the rubble of the strikes on Harasta, inside the rebel-held Ghouta pocket.
Government forces have intensified their siege against the civilians and rebels there since February in an effort to secure a surrender that would see part of the population sent to exile. The U.N. has denounced other such arrangements as “forced displacement” and war crimes.
The Siege Watch monitoring group says around 400,000 people are trapped under the constant bombardment.
The surprise meeting between Turkey’s Gen. Hulusi Akar, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, was called to address reciprocal mistrust between Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces, U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, and Russian-allied Syrian government forces, fighting their way toward the Islamic State group’s de facto capital, Raqqa.
Turkey, a NATO ally, views the Kurdish group that dominates the Syria Democratic Forces as terrorists and has threatened to drive them from the northern town of Manbij, which the alliance captured from the militants last year with the aid of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. Turkey and Syria meanwhile support opposite sides in the Syrian civil war.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, addressing a campaign rally in the Turkish capital Ankara, reiterated his readiness to confront the Kurdish forces.
“We can clear Manbij together, then we can clear Raqqa together,” he said.
The U.S. has a few hundred special operations forces embedded with the SDF and wants the alliance to lead the march on Raqqa. The Pentagon said Monday that U.S. forces have also taken up positions on the outskirts of Manbij to try to keep a lid on tensions.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the meetings would continue on Wednesday.
“There is a need for an effective coordination in the efforts to clear Syria of all terror groups because so many countries are involved there,” he told reporters. “If we cannot establish coordination, the risk of a conflict that we would not desire can emerge. That’s the real aim of the meeting.”
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a terse statement that the military chiefs talked about “the current situation in the fight against terrorist organizations in Syria in the context of raising the efficiency of confronting all terrorist organizations in the future.”
It said they “underlined the importance of taking additional steps to prevent incidents during operations.”
On Monday, SDF fighters blocked the main road linking Raqqa with the eastern of Deir el-Zour, which is split between IS and the Syrian government. The SDF is now stationed eight kilometers (five miles) north of Raqqa.
Elsewhere in northern Syria, government forces and their allies marched closer to a main water pumping station controlled by IS in Aleppo province, Syria’s military and an activist group said.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said troops are now just miles from the station, which supplies the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest, with water.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also confirmed the advance near the town of Deir Hafer, the Jarrah air base and the Khafseh pumping station.
The advance is part of a dayslong government offensive against IS backed by Russian airstrikes. Taking the water station would ease Aleppo’s water shortage.
In the center of the country, Syrian troops captured the Jazal oil field from the extremists after days of fighting, state TV said, quoting an unnamed military official. The TV said military experts are dismantling explosives left behind while firefighters are working on extinguishing one of the wells that was torched by the extremists.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Philip Issa in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.