Russia says Kurdish fighters have left Syrian border area as deadline expires
By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Tuvan Gumrukcu
MOSCOW/ANKARA (Reuters) – Syrian Kurdish fighters completed their withdrawal from a strip of land on the Syrian-Turkish border ahead of a Tuesday evening deadline agreed between Moscow and Ankara, Russia’s defense minister said.
A senior aide to Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara would now discover through planned joint patrols with Russia whether the Kurdish YPG forces had really pulled out of the area or not.
Under the accord clinched a week ago between the presidents of Turkey and Russia, Syrian border guards and Russian military police were meant to clear all YPG forces and their weapons from a 30 km (19 mile) band of territory south of the border by 6 pm local time (1500 GMT) on Tuesday.
“The withdrawal of (Kurdish) armed forces from the territory where a safety corridor is supposed to be created has been completed ahead of schedule,” TASS news agency quoted Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying.
“Both Syrian border guards and our military police have gone there,” he added.
The deal, clinched in the Russian Black Sea town of Sochi, reinforced an existing U.S.-brokered ceasefire that had halted Turkey’s offensive, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, in northeast Syria targeting the YPG, which Ankara views as a terrorist organization linked to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.
After the Tuesday evening deadline, Russian and Turkish forces are scheduled to start joint patrols of a narrower, 10 km strip of land on the Syrian side of the border.
A Russian delegation is currently in Turkey for talks on how those patrols will work and on the wider security situation in northeast Syria. Turkey’s defense ministry said the delegation held a second day of talks on Tuesday, without saying whether the two countries had yet agreed how to carry out the patrols.
“Turkey and Russia had set a 150-hour deadline for the YPG terrorists to leave the safe zone. The time is up. We will establish, through joint patrols, whether or not the terrorists have actually withdrawn,” said Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Earlier on Tuesday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar had complained that some Kurdish YPG forces remained in the area of the Turkish-Syrian border.
“This fight (against terrorism) is not over. We are aware that it will not end,” he also told the Sabah newspaper.
Asked about the joint patrols planned with Russian forces in the border area, Akar said: “The rules of engagement, (the question of) which vehicles are to be used, the authorities and directives are to be determined.”
Akar said there were still around 1,000 YPG fighters in the border town of Manbij and a further 1,000 in nearby Tel Rifat. The two towns are located to the west of the strip of territory that Turkey wants to turn into a “safe zone” but Syrian and Russian forces are also meant to clear them of YPG forces.
Turkey launched its offensive in northeast Syria after President Donald Trump said he was pulling 1,000 U.S. military personnel from the area. Turkey’s NATO allies, including the United States, have criticized Ankara’s actions, fearing it will undermine the fight against Islamic State.
The YPG is the main component in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been a key ally of the United States against the Islamic State militants.
Russia, a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad, has emerged as the key foreign power in Syria, its influence further bolstered by the withdrawal of U.S.
(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Dominic Evans)