Erdogan and Putin are holding talks in Sochi, with Ankara’s offensive in northeast Syria high on the agenda.
Turkish and Russian troops began their first joint ground patrols in northeast Syria on Friday under a deal between the two countries that forced Kurdish fighters to evacuate from a so-called “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border.
Turkey and allied Syrian rebels launched a cross-border offensive on October 9 against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), dubbed “terrorists” by Turkey, seizing control of 120km-long (75 miles) and 30km-deep (19 miles) strip of land along the frontier.
Russia has told Turkey that the YPG left the strip on Wednesday, a week after Ankara and Moscow agreed to remove the YPG fighters from the area.
Turkish armoured vehicles on Friday drove through country roads across the border to join their Russian counterparts, according to Reuters television footage filmed from the Turkish side of the border.
Ground and air units were involved in the patrol in the area of the Syrian border town of Darbasiya, the Turkish Defence Ministry said on Twitter, showing photographs of four armoured vehicles and soldiers studying a map.
The 110-km joint patrol with Russian military police, consisting of nine military vehicles, starts at Darbasiya and travels west along the border, the Russian defence ministry said.
Overnight, Turkey‘s defence ministry said Turkey had handed over to the Russians 18 “regime elements”, believed to be Syrian government soldiers.
They were detained in Syria near the Turkish border this week. It said the move was coordinated with Russia but did not say who they were handed to.
They were seized on Tuesday during operations southeast of the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, part of the area where Turkey’s military action took place, which stretches some 120km (75 miles) along the border to the town of Tal Abyad.
On Wednesday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey had information that the YPG had not completed its pullout.
He said Turkey’s joint patrols with Russia were starting on Friday at a depth of 7km (4 miles) within Syria, less than the 10km set out in the October 22 Ankara-Moscow deal.
First Turkish-Russian joint patrols with ground and air units are underway east of Ad Darbasiyah in NE Syria as agreed between Turkish and Russian presidents in Sochi on 22 October. pic.twitter.com/daFWbPahx2
— T.C. Millî Savunma Bakanlığı (@tcsavunma) November 1, 2019
Russia is the Syrian government’s most powerful ally and helped it turn the tables in the country’s civil war by retaking much of the country from rebels since 2015. The Turkish-Russian deal last week allowed Syrian government forces to move back into border regions from which they had been absent for years.
Ankara launched its offensive against the YPG following US President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of 1,000 US troops from northern Syria in early October. The YPG had helped the US defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group in Syria.
Erdogan said on Thursday night that Turkey planned to establish a “refugee town or towns” in a “safe zone” between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, part of a project which state media have said would cost 151 billion lira ($26bn).
He was meeting United NationsSecretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday morning and said he would ask him to call for a donors’ meeting to help finance Ankara’s plans for the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the region.
18 Regime elements seized during the search / detection / reconnaissance / security activities in the southeast of Rasulayn on October 29 were handed over as a result of the coordination with the authorities of the Russian Federation.#MSB
— T.C. Millî Savunma Bakanlığı (@tcsavunma) October 31, 2019
Ankara has said it plans to resettle in Syria up to two million of the 3.6 million Syrian war refugees that it hosts.
According to plans Erdogan presented at the United Nations General Assembly in September, Turkey would resettle some 405,000 people between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain.
Erdogan said leaders at the General Assembly had viewed the plans positively but declined to offer financial support. He strongly criticised international reaction to the Syrian refugee issue.
“We have for years hosted millions of refugees in our lands. The support we have received from the international community has unfortunately just been advice,” he said.