Russia urges Kurdish fighters to withdraw from Syria’s border

Kremlin spokesman warns YPG militia to evacuate northeast Syria quickly or get ‘steamrolled’ by the Turkish military.

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters
Turkey's defence ministry is signaling it will not resume its offensive in northeast Syria [Bakr Alkasem/AFP]

Russia has warned Kurdish forces to quickly withdraw from the Turkey-Syria border – after a deal between Moscow and Ankara – or be crushed by the Turkish army, adding that the United States had “betrayed and abandoned” the Syrian fighters.

Wednesday’s comments by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov followed a deal agreed on Tuesday between Turkey and Russia that will see Syrian and Russian forces deploy to northeast Syria to remove Kurdish fighters and their weapons from the border.

Peskov, reportedly reacting to comments by US President Donald Trump’s special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey, complained that it appeared the Americans were encouraging the Kurds to stay close to the Syrian border to fight the Turkish army.

“The United States has been the Kurds’ closest ally in recent years. [But] in the end, it abandoned the Kurds and, in essence, betrayed them,” Peskov was quoted as saying. “Now they [the US] prefer to leave the Kurds at the border [with Turkey] and almost force them to fight the Turks.”

If the Kurds did not withdraw as per the deal, Peskov said Syrian border guards and Russian military police would have to withdraw, leaving the Kurds to deal with the Turkish army.

The Kurdish fighters would be “steamrolled” by the Turks, he said.

A column of Russian military police arrived in the city of Kobane in northern Syria, Russia’s defence ministry said on Wednesday, according to the TASS news agency.

The military police will help facilitate the withdrawal of Kurdish forces.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying on Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin assured him that Kurdish fighters will not be allowed to remain in Syria along the Turkish border wearing “regime clothes”. 

Twice betrayed

Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Turkey’s Akcakale at the border with Syria, said there was no word yet from the Kurdish fighters about the Russia-Turkey agreement.

“The fact of the matter is though the Kurdish forces are in a very difficult position, they accuse the Americans of letting them down, of being stabbed in the back, withdrawing their forces for the Turks to attack,” he said.

“They were then forced to turn to the Syrian regime and the Russians for help. And now we have this agreement between the Russians and the Turks demanding that the remaining Kurdish forces withdraw,” he added.

Turkey’s defence ministry has signalled it will not resume its offensive in northeast Syria, saying: “At this stage, there is no further need to conduct a new operation outside the present operation area.”

But the country’s foreign minister later said Turkish forces would “neutralise” any remaining Syrian Kurdish fighters they come across in areas now under Turkish control in northeastern Syria.

“If there are terrorist remnants, we would clear them,” Mevlut Cavusoglu told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency on Wednesday.

Cavusoglu said the deal with Russia – which foresees joint Turkish-Russian patrols after the withdrawal of Kurdish forces – would continue until a lasting political solution for Syria is reached.

He said the border areas would be locally administered, mostly by Arabs.

Cavusoglu also said Turkey agreed not to conduct joint patrols in the city of Qamishli, because of Russian concerns that such a move could lead to a confrontation between Turkish troops and Syrian government forces who have long been present in the area.

Turkish operation

On October 9, Turkey launched an offensive aimed at carving out a “safe zone” cleared of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara considers “terrorists”, as well as at repatriating some of the 3.6 million refugees it was hosting.

According to the deal with Russia, announced at a joint news conference in Sochi, Ankara will control a 32km-wide (20-mile) stretch between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, which covers 120km (75 miles) of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Beginning at noon on Wednesday, Russian military police and Syrian border guards will start removing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which spearhead the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and their weapons 30km (19 miles) from the border area. The agreement said the move should be completed in 150 hours.

Following that, Turkish and Russian forces will run joint patrols 10km (six miles) to the east and west of the zone.

Ankara and Moscow, which have backed opposing sides in Syria’s long-running war, also reiterated their commitment to the preservation of the political unity and territorial integrity of Syria and the protection of national security of Turkey.

The Sochi memorandum also said the YPG and their weapons would be removed from Manbij and Tal Rifat, where Syrian government forces moved in after the Kurdish-led fighters struck a deal with Damascus to fend off a Turkish assault. 

Russia is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s main military ally.

Turkey had long said it wanted to establish a 444km long (276-mile) and 32km wide (20-mile) “safe zone”. However, during the ceasefire, the US and the SDF said the withdrawal would only cover an area of about 120km (75 miles) between the towns of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad – something that was also confirmed by the agreement reached in Sochi.

US withdrawal

The US and the European Union consider the PKK a “terrorist” group, but not the SDF and the YPG, which was Washington’s main ground ally in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group.

In early October,  President Trump announced a decision to withdraw approximately 1,000 US troops from northeast Syria, created a power vacuum in the region and paving the way for Turkey’s long-threatened operation.

After days of fighting, the Kurdish fighters reached an 11th-hour agreement with Damascus which saw Syrian government troops move into some of the area’s towns and villages, including the flashpoint city of Manbij, for the first time in years.

Officials in Ankara have said that Turkey did not object to Syrian government forces deploying in some of the YPG-held areas as long as the “terrorists” were removed from the region.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies