Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces ‘reach ceasefire deal’

As US says Ankara-backed rebels and Kurdish forces agree to brief halt in fighting, Turkey insists operation will go on.

Turkish army operation against IS in Syria''s Jarablus
The YPG representative to the anti-ISIL coalition confirmed that they had reached a truce with Turkish-backed rebels [Sedat Suna/EPA]

US officials said Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and Kurdish forces had agreed to a temporary pause in fighting in northern Syria, as Turkey insisted it planned to continue military operations in the region until all threats to its security were removed.

Turkey-backed Syria rebels advance towards Manbij

“In the last several hours, we have received assurance that all parties involved are going to stop shooting at each other and focus on the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant [ISIL] threat,” Colonel John Thomas, spokesman for the US Central Command, said on Tuesday.

“It’s a loose agreement for at least the next couple of days and we are hoping that will solidify,” he told AFP news agency.

Thomas said the Turkish and Syrian Democratic Forces, made up largely of Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), had opened communications with the US and between each other “with the goal of limiting hostilities”.

Thomas called the reported agreement between the two groups “encouraging”.

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The White House also lauded the apparent halt in fighting between anti-ISIL forces in Syria.

Erdogan vows to defeat Kurdish, ISIL fighters in Syria

“The United States welcomes the overnight calm between the Turkish military and other counter-ISIL forces in Syria,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Tuesday.

“It continues to encourage these moves as a way to prevent further hostilities and loss of life between all counter-ISIL forces operating in the area.”

YPG representative to the global anti-ISIL coalition, Polat Can, also confirmed that they had reached a truce with Turkish-backed rebels. 

“We have reached a temporary ceasefire between the Jarablus Military Council and the occupying Turkish army in the Jarablus area under the supervision of the global coalition,” he said on Twitter. 

‘Unacceptable comments’

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Tanju Bilgic, the official spokesman for Turkey’s foreign ministry, did not confirm or deny the reported ceasefire.

In a later statement, Bilgic said Turkey’s Euphrates Shield “operation … will continue, with utmost respect to the territorial integrity of Syria, until the calamity of terror is not disturbing Turkish citizens”.

The foreign ministry statement also said that comments from the US about the target and scope of the week-long Turkish military operation in Syria were “unacceptable”, adding that Ankara expected a US pledge that the YPG would remain east of the Euphrates to be fulfilled “as soon as possible”.

Separately, Turkish military sources told Reuters news agency that the country’s army had not agreed to any ceasefire with Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. 

A senior Turkish military official also told the Sabah daily: “We are not aware of such an agreement. If the US announced such a thing that means they are trying to present terrorist organisations as formal parties as if we deal with them.”

“These  conflicting reports could be a further indication of mounting tension between Turkey and the US about how to deal with northern Syria,” Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Gaziantep on the Turkish side of the Syria-Turkey border, said.

“We’ve been talking to [Free Syrian Army] factions operating on the ground,” he said. “They are basically saying that as far as they are concerned there is no truce.”

“They told me that they have been shelling some areas under YPG control north of Manbij,” he added. “Their strategy basically is to continue the fight until they push YPG across the Euphrates River.”

In a separate statement late on Tuesday, the Turkish military said that three of its soldiers were wounded and a tank was slightly damaged in a rocket attack in western Jarablus, without mentioning which group was behind the strike.

The wounded soldiers were immediately rushed to a hospital and ISIL targets in Syria’s Kulliyah region were destroyed with “precision”, the statement added.

Turkey views the YPG as a threat because of its close links to the  PKK [Sedat Suna/EPA]
Turkey views the YPG as a threat because of its close links to the PKK [Sedat Suna/EPA]

The US has long been trying to avert an escalation in violence between Turkish-backed FSA forces operating in and around the Syrian border town of Jarablus and YPG fighters in the same region.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter called on Turkey on Monday to stay focused on fighting ISIL and not target the YPG. He said a continued Turkish push would complicate the fight against ISIL. 

Both sides are backed by the US in their fight against ISIL, but Turkey, a key NATO ally, views the YPG as a threat because of its close links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been fighting Turkish forces for the past three decades. 

Turkish forces last week launched a two-pronged operation inside Syria against ISIL (also known as ISIS) fighters and the YPG, shelling more than a dozen targets.

Over the weekend, clashes between Turkish-backed FSA fighters and the YPG killed at least 25 Kurdish fighters, according to Ankara. Turkey was also accused of targeting Kurdish civilians in air strikes, claims which it denied.

On Monday, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels said they were advancing towards Manbij, a city on the west bank of the Euphrates River, captured earlier this month by Kurdish forces.

Also on Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the YPG “needs to cross east of the Euphrates as soon as possible. So long as they don’t, they will be a target”.

“The Turkish government clearly says that it will stop this military operation if the YPG crosses the Euphrates River,” Al Jazeera’s Alelbarra said. “So, there is still a way forward to solve this crisis diplomatically.

“However, if the YPG stays in Manbij, we are likely to see the FSA continue fighting until they capture the city. “

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies