Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syria say their forces have started to withdraw from outposts along the Turkish border after the United States and Turkey reached a deal to establish a “safe zone” there earlier this month.
The Kurdish-led regional administration said on Tuesday that work had begun over the weekend in the Ras al-Ain area, including moves such as removing earth mounds as well as withdrawing heavy weapons and a group of fighters.
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On Monday, they repeated the steps in Tal Abyad, “showing the seriousness of our commitment to current understandings” on the buffer zone, the administration said in a statement.
Ankara has been pressing for the zone – running in the east of the Euphrates River towards the Iraqi border – to push the US-allied predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) away from its border.
On August 7, Ankara and Washington agreed to set up a joint operations centre to coordinate and manage the establishment of the planned zone but gave few details about the deal, which includes joint patrols and will come into effect in phases. One point of friction has been how deep the buffer area would extend into Syria.
‘SDF will stay in towns’
Turkey has long pressed for a 30-40km-deep zone within Syria, while the US has tried to limit it to 10km.
According to Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from the Turkish province of Antakya near the border with Syria, the SDF said they were withdrawing as much as 17km into the Syrian territory.
“They say that the first five kilometres will be open to be patrolled by Turkey, and further in by the US, and further in than that by the US and the Kurds,” he said, adding that the SDF’s statement was nothing close to what Ankara originally wanted.
“The SDF also says they will only withdraw from rural areas, but will stay in towns and cities.”
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) spearheads the SDF alliance, which controls parts of northeastern Syria after defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or as ISIS) armed group with US help.
Washington’s support for the YPG has enraged Turkey, which deems the fighters a security threat linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters at home.
Turkey, the European Union and the US see the PKK as a “terrorist” group, while the YPG has been blacklisted by only Ankara.
Turkey wants no delay
Ankara has repeatedly said it would not tolerate any delays to the deal by US officials, warning it will mount a cross-border offensive on its own to clear its borders if necessary.
On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country’s troops would soon enter northeastern Syria.
“Our armed drones, drones and helicopters are in the region … We expect our ground troops to enter the region very soon,” he said.
On Saturday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said the US-Turkey operations centre was at “full capacity,” adding that the first joint helicopter flight took place on Saturday afternoon.
Turkey in recent years has already sent its military twice into northern Syria to push Kurdish fighters from its borders, and it currently controls a region in northwestern Syria together with allied rebels.
The “safe zone” was initially suggested by Washington last year to dissuade Ankara from carrying out another cross-border attack, after previous offensives in 2016 and 2018.