Turkish push in northeast Syria could take longer than anticipated, analysts warn, raising fears of clashes.
Kurdish fighters belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have withdrawn from the besieged Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain in the first pullback under a ceasefire deal with Turkey brokered by the United States.
SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel said in a statement that the Kurdish-led group had no fighters left in Ras al-Ain following Sunday’s evacuation.
But Turkish-backed Syrian rebels who took control of most of Ras al-Ain last week amid a Turkish offensive into northeast Syria launched on October 9 disputed that claim, saying the Kurdish forces were still entrenched in nearly thirty percent of the area, the Reuters news agency reported.
Turkey’s defence ministry had earlier said a convoy of approximately 86 vehicles carrying the US-backed SDF fighters departed the border town in the direction of Tal Tamr, another town located about 40 kilometres (24 miles) south.
An SDF withdrawal from Ras al-Ain would be a boost to the ceasefire, which came into effect on Thursday evening, but has been shaky ever since.
The truce put Turkey’s military operation on “pause” until later this week, but sporadic clashes have erupted daily and there have also been occasional shelling, particularly around Ras al-Ain, where the SDF have been encircled by Turkish-led forces.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from the Turkish city of Sanliurfa, said fighting for control of the town had been “intense” prior to the ceasefire, adding that even after the truce there had been “reported ongoing sporadic clashes” in the area.
“So this [SDF withdrawal] must be a great relief for what we believe are at least a couple of hundred civilians that have been trapped in Ras al-Ain,” Stratford said.
US President Donald Trump‘s administration negotiated the five-day ceasefire with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after heavy criticism at home and abroad that Washington had abandoned the SDF and opened the way for Ankara’s offensive by abruptly removing its soldiers from northeast Syria.
Washington has branded the security situation in northern Syria “untenable” for its troops, and on Sunday US Defence Secretary Mark Esper confirmed the approximately 1,000 soldiers being withdrawn from the region would be relocated to western Iraq instead.
Trump himself declared this week that Washington has no stake in defending the SDF – the US’s main ground ally in the years-long campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group.
Ankara considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which forms the backbone of the SDF, a “terrorist” group linked to Kurdish separatists inside Turkey.
Under the ceasefire deal, Ankara agreed to give the Kurdish forces 120 hours to withdraw from a so-called “safe zone” that Erdogan wants to establish along Syria’s border with Turkey. The agreement did not specify the area of the pullback.
Erdogan on Sunday said he expected the US to keep its promises and not use stalling tactics over the agreement brokered between the NATO allies, warning Turkey would resume its military operation if the deal faltered.
He had previously threatened the offensive will resume if the withdrawal is not completed within the five-day time window set out by the truce agreement.
Al Jazeera’s Stratford meanwhile, said there was continued disagreement between the Turkish leader and the SDF over the extent of the latter’s withdrawal from the border region.
“President Erdogan wants this so-called ‘safe zone’ to be 450km long … and around 30km deep,” Stratford said.
“But the SDF have said from day one of this ceasefire that they will be withdrawing their forces from an area considerably smaller than that, from Ras al-Ain to the town of Tal Abyad,” he added.
“So it remains to be seen what kind of level of SDF withdrawal we are going to see in these remaining areas between now and Tuesday evening, when the ceasefire ends.”