Poland blames Belarus as migrants try to force their way across border

By Matthias Williams and Joanna Plucinska

KYIV (Reuters) -Poland accused Belarus of trying to spark a major confrontation on Monday as video clips showed hundreds of migrants walking towards the Polish border and some trying to breach the fence using spades and other implements.

Warsaw said it had deployed additional soldiers, border guards and police, while neighboring Lithuania said it might introduce a state of emergency on its border with Belarus.

The European Union, to which Poland and Lithuania both belong, accuses Minsk of encouraging migrants from the Middle East and Africa to cross into the EU via Belarus, as a form of hybrid warfare in revenge for Western sanctions on President Alexander Lukashenko’s government over human rights abuses.

Poland said it had withstood the first attempts on Monday by the migrants to force their way across the border.

A video distributed by Polish authorities showed one man cutting part of a barbed wire fence, another attacking the fence with a spade, while a Polish soldier sprayed an unidentified substance from a can.

In an earlier video, shared by the Belarusian blogging service NEXTA, migrants carrying rucksacks and wearing winter clothing were seen walking on the side of a highway. Other videos showed large groups of migrants sitting by the road and being escorted by armed men dressed in khaki.

“Belarus wants to cause a major incident, preferably with shots fired and casualties. According to media reports, they are preparing a major provocation near Kuznica Bialostocka, that there will be an attempt at a mass border crossing,” Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk told Polish public radio.

Lithuania said it also was moving additional troops to the border to prepare for a possible surge in migrant crossings. Latvia said the situation was “alarming.”

‘INHUMAN ATTITUDE’

Lukashenko’s government has repeatedly denied manufacturing a migrant crisis, blaming the West for the crossings and treatment of migrants.

The Belarusian state border committee confirmed on Monday that many refugees were moving towards the Polish border, but said Warsaw was taking an “inhumane attitude.”

Poland has stationed more than 12,000 troops at the border, its defense minister said, while sharing aerial footage of migrants clustered on the Belarusian side.

“They throw tree trunks on the fence so as to reduce the height of this fence to breach it,” said Katarzyna Zdanowicz, spokeswoman for Polish border guards in the area.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya urged a strong response from the EU and United Nations.

“Belarus’ regime escalates the border crisis – migrants are pushed to EU border by armed men,” she tweeted. “The migrant smuggling, violence & ill-treatment must stop.”

The EU, the United States and Britain imposed sanctions on Belarus after Lukashenko unleashed a violent crackdown on mass protests following a disputed election last year.

“Lukashenko’s regime is putting the lives and health of migrants at risk, using them to escalate the border crisis and provoke Poland,” said Bix Aliu, the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Warsaw. “Hostile actions by Belarus are exacerbating the situation on the border with the EU and NATO dangerously and must end immediately.”

Lukashenko has defied opposition calls to resign, buttressed by money and diplomatic support from traditional ally Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday defended Minsk’s handling of the migrant issue, saying Belarus was taking all necessary measures to act legally.

Charities say the migrants face freezing weather conditions and a lack of food and medical attention.

Poland said seven migrants had been found dead on its side of the border, with reports of more deaths in Belarus.

Humanitarian groups accuse Poland’s ruling nationalists of violating the international right to asylum by pushing migrants back into Belarus instead of accepting their applications for protection. Poland says its actions are legal.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Facebook: “The Polish border is not just a line on a map. The border is sacred – Polish blood has been spilled for it!”.

(Reporting by Matthias Williams in Kyiv, Joanna Plucinska and Pawel Florkiewicz in Warsaw; Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv, Dmitry Antonov in Moscow and Christian Kraemer in Berlin; writing by Matthias Williams, editing by Ed Osmond and Gareth Jones)

Canada extends travel restrictions at U.S. border: Canadian official

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. land borders with Canada will remain closed to non-essential travel until at least April 21, the Canadian government said Thursday.

The new 30-day extension is the second announced under President Joe Biden and comes as U.S lawmakers in border states have urged lifting the nearly year-old restrictions to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canada has shown little interest in lifting the restrictions and last month imposed new COVID-19 testing requirements for some Canadians returning at crossings.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Explainer: How Trump has sealed off the United States during coronavirus outbreak

By Mica Rosenberg and Ted Hesson

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump has taken drastic steps to curb the entry of foreigners into the United States since his administration declared a public health emergency over the new coronavirus outbreak.

Here are some of the most significant additional immigration changes the U.S. government has made in response to the pandemic.

CLOSING THE BORDERS

The United States, Canada and Mexico closed their shared borders to tourist and recreational travel in late March to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. The closures have since been extended until May 21.

At the same time, the Trump administration implemented new rules that allow U.S. border officials to swiftly deport migrants who attempt to cross into the country illegally, bypassing standard legal processes.

More than 10,000 migrants have been expelled under the new border rules, including more than 500 children, according to preliminary data obtained by Reuters. From April 2 to April 10, 70% of those “expelled” under the new rules were Mexican, a quarter were from Central American and the rest from other countries, the data showed.

Deportation flights of immigrants who have been arrested in the United States are continuing even as some countries are expressing concern that migrants who have been held in U.S. detention centers are being sent back to their home countries infected with the virus. U.S. immigration officials plan to start testing deportees for the virus, a U.S. official told Reuters.

SHUTTERING IMMIGRATION COURTS

The U.S. Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts as part of the U.S. Department of Justice, has extended the cancellation of all hearings for migrants not in detention until May 15, 2020.

Another controversial program put in place by the administration last year, known as the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” has sent tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for court hearings. But those proceedings have been put on hold through at least May 1.

SUSPENDING VISA PROCESSING

The United States suspended all routine visa services in most countries worldwide due to the coronavirus outbreak on March 18, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. The State Department said at the time that embassies would resume the services as soon as possible but gave no end date.

That same day, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it was temporarily halting all routine in-person services through at least May 3, and canceled all asylum interviews and naturalization oath ceremonies for new citizens.

Some experts have said the pause on naturalizations could affect people who had hoped to vote the first time as U.S. citizens in November’s presidential election.

HALTING REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT

The U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration said in mid-March they would temporarily stop resettling refugees due to travel disruptions caused by the coronavirus. But before the pandemic, the United States had already slashed the number of refugees it would accept in the 2020 fiscal year to 18,000, the lowest level in decades.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S.-Canada border to close to nonessential travel: Trump

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S.-Canada border will close to nonessential traffic, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted on Wednesday, saying details on the move would be announced later but that it would not affect trade between the two countries.

“We will be, by mutual consent, temporarily closing our Northern Border with Canada to non-essential traffic. Trade will not be affected. Details to follow!” Trump wrote.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Central American migrants ford river into Mexico, chuck rocks

By Roberto Ramirez

SUCHIATE RIVER, Guatemala/Mexico (Reuters) – Hundreds of Central Americans waded across a river into Mexico on Monday, some clashing with waiting security forces, in a new challenge for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s efforts to contain migration at the bidding of the United States.

Scattered groups launched rocks at a few members of Mexico’s National Guard who were on the banks of the river attempting to thwart any illegal crossings, as hundreds of others ran past into Mexico, video footage of the scene showed.

The mostly Honduran migrants appeared to grow impatient on the bridge over the Suchiate River that connects the two countries, after some were denied permission to cross by assembled Mexican migration officials.

“We didn’t come to stay here, we just want to cross to the other side,” said Ingrid, 18, a Honduran migrant. “I don’t want to go back to my country because there is nothing there, just hunger.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to punish Mexico and Central American countries economically if they fail to curb migrant flows, resulting in a series of agreements aimed at taking pressure off the United States in absorbing the numbers.

At least 2,000 migrants had been camped in the Guatemalan border town of Tecun Uman, opposite Ciudad Hidalgo on the Mexican side.

Mexico has offered migrants work in the south, but those who do not accept it or seek asylum will not be issued safe conduct passes to the United States, and most will be deported, the interior ministry said.

The ministry said in a statement on Sunday that Mexican authorities had already received nearly 1,100 migrants in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco and set out various options to them in accordance with their migration status.

“However, in the majority of cases, once the particular migration situation has been reviewed, assisted returns will be carried out to their countries of origin, assuming that their situation warrants it,” the ministry said.

According to Guatemala, at least 4,000 people entered from Honduras since Wednesday, making for one of the biggest surges since three Central American governments signed agreements with the Trump administration obliging them to assume more of the responsibility for dealing with migrants.

In late 2018, a large caravan of migrants sought to break through the Tecun Uman border. At that time as well, many crossed via the Suchiate River dividing the two countries.

(Writing by David Alire Garcia in Mexico City. Additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Bernadette Baum)

Some migrants waiting in Mexico for U.S. court hearings caught crossing illegally

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Roughly one in 10 migrants pushed back to Mexico to await U.S. court hearings under a Trump administration program have been caught crossing the border again, a top border official said on Thursday.

Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said during a White House briefing that migrants returned to Mexico under a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) have a 9% recidivism rate. Many of those migrants intend to seek asylum in the United States.

“Unfortunately, some of the individuals in the MPP program are actually going outside the shelter environment,” Morgan said. “They’re re-engaging with the cartels because they’re tired of waiting. And that’s when we’re hearing that some of that further abuse and exploitation is happening.”

Morgan said that around 50,000 people have been returned to Mexico under the program. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for more details on his comments.

The administration of Republican President Donald Trump launched the MPP program in January as part of a strategy to deter mostly Central American families from trekking to the U.S. border to seek asylum. Trump officials have argued the bulk of such claims for protection lack merit and that migrants are motivated by economic concerns.

Immigration advocates say asylum seekers sent to wait in Mexican border towns, for the weeks or months it takes for their cases to wind through backlogged immigration courts, face dangerous and possibly deadly conditions.

Migrants who claim fear of returning to Mexico can ask to stay in the United States for the duration of their court case. But just 1% of cases have been transferred out of the program, according to a Reuters analysis of federal immigration court data as of early October.

The administration has said the MPP program and other measures has helped lead to a decline in border arrests. In October, apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border fell for the fifth straight month, Morgan said.

The White House briefing followed a leadership change at the Homeland Security Department on Wednesday.

The Trump administration installed Chad Wolf, previously chief of staff to former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, as acting secretary. Wolf then announced that acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli – an immigration hard liner – would be elevated to the No. 2 position at the department.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Lisa Shumaker)

Tenuous truce in Gaza as Islamic Jihad, Israel differ on terms

Tenuous truce in Gaza as Islamic Jihad, Israel differ on terms
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad and Israel declared a halt to hostilities across the Gaza Strip border on Thursday but a lasting ceasefire appeared tenuous as they differed on terms.

Islamic Jihad said an Egyptian-mediated truce went into effect at 0330 GMT, about 48 hours after Israel triggered the exchange of fire by killing the Iranian-backed faction’s top Gaza commander in an air strike, deeming him an imminent threat.

Occasional rocket fire from Gaza broke the calm that ensued, but the ceasefire largely held as night fell.

Gaza medical officials have put the total death toll from the two days of fighting at 34 Palestinians, almost half of them civilians and including eight children and three women.

Hundreds of rocket launches by militants had paralyzed much of southern Israel and reached as far north as Tel Aviv, sending entire communities to shelters. Dozens of Israelis were hurt.

Hamas, Gaza’s dominant faction, appeared to have stayed out of this round of fighting. That may have helped stem escalation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military operation was drawing to a conclusion with its goals met. “Our enemies got the message – we can reach anyone,” Netanyahu said, as he visited soldiers at a missile interception battery.

Islamic Jihad said Israel had accepted its demand to stop both the targeted killing of militants and sometimes lethal army gunfire at weekly Palestinian protests on the Gaza border.

“The ceasefire began under Egyptian sponsorship after the Occupation (Israel) submitted to the conditions set by Islamic Jihad on behalf of Palestinian resistance factions,” Islamic Jihad spokesman Musab Al-Braim said.

But Israel said it would observe only a limited quid pro quo. “Quiet will be answered with quiet,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz told Army Radio.

MISSILE STRIKE

In the deadliest incident of the two-day hostilities, eight members of a Gaza family were killed by an Israeli missile strike shortly before the truce took hold, said medical officials and residents.

They said all were civilians. But Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Avichay Adraee said the head of the family, Rasmi Abu Malhous, who was among the dead, was the commander of Islamic Jihad rocket crews in the central Gaza Strip.

Neighbors left their homes to help rescue workers pull out the bodies of the family, some of which were completely buried in sandy earth. Civilians tried to test the pulse of one body before pulling it out.

Israel’s allegation about Rasmi Abu Malhous could not immediately be confirmed by Reuters. Islamic Jihad did not claim him as a member.

Neither the hostilities nor efforts to halt them shifted the dynamics of the underlying core conflict.

While Hamas has been open to long-term truces, like Islamic Jihad it refuses to accept permanent co-existence with Israel.

Gazans are seeking to end years of an Israeli-led blockade. Refugees from the 1948 war of Israel’s founding and their descendents make up most of the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza and want the right to return to their families’ former lands.

Israel rejects this as demographic suicide and sees no means of making peace as long as Hamas and Islamic Jihad are armed.

Katz said there would be no change to Israeli military policy in Gaza, contradicting the assertion of Islamic Jihad.

Targeted killings “will not cease”, he said, and “the open-fire policy for which the Israel Defence Forces is responsible (at the Gaza border) will not change”.

Markets in Gaza reopened as life returned to normal, though people expressed mixed feelings about the truce.

“We responded and made clear our blood was not shed in vain. Also a truce is good because we don’t want our people to suffer more under the blockade,” said one resident, Mohammad Al-Smairi.

U.N. mediator Nickolay Mladenov said the Gaza situation remained fragile, tweeting: “All must show maximum restraint and do their part to prevent bloodshed. The Middle East does not need more wars.”

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson)

On Norway’s icy border with Russia, unease over military buildup

On Norway’s icy border with Russia, unease over military buildup
By Gwladys Fouche

SETERMOEN/KIRKENES, Norway (Reuters) – Under a soft winter sun in northern Norway, U.S. Marines train in the ice and snow as they learn how to fight in the freezing cold.

“Which country is to the northeast?” Staff Sergeant Daniel Croak bellows at a group of 20 soldiers in camouflaged combat jackets and white trousers in a pine forest near the town of Setermoen.

“Russia!” they shout back.

The troops are part of a contingent of 650 Marines staging a recent joint military exercise with 3,000 soldiers from NATO-member Norway at a time when both NATO and Russia have increased their military presence in the Arctic.

A few hundred kilometers from Setermoen, Russia is modernizing its forces on the Kola Peninsula, home to its Northern Fleet. Russia has also carried out maneuvers in recent weeks, staging a major submarine exercise in the North Atlantic, according to intelligence sources cited by Norwegian media.

“Do not use your GPSes. They may be jammed,” Croak barks to the Marines, a warning stemming from NATO accusations – denied by Russia – that Moscow has in the past jammed GPS systems in Norway.

The rising tension is unsettling many Norwegians, not least in the town of Kirkenes, which for three decades has been trying to foster cooperation with Russia.

Residents can cross the nearby border quickly with a visa-free permit. Many go to the nearby Russian town of Nikel to buy petrol because it is much cheaper there, and street signs use both the Cyrillic and Latin scripts.

“I don’t like it that they build up the military on both sides of the border. We don’t want rising tensions,” said Eirik Wikan, co-owner of the Kimek shipyard in Kirkenes, which gets two-thirds of its revenues from repairing Russian vessels.

“Here in the north, we work together to reduce tensions … We are trying not to be part of them.”

“A RUSSIAN TOWN IN NORWAY”

About a third of the company’s 180 employees are Russian, 22 of whom work in the Russian port city of Murmansk.

Nikolai Chagin, a mechanic from the Russian town of Severodvinsk, has worked at the shipyard in Kirkenes since 2006.

“I don’t have those problems I used to have in Russia before: I have a good job, a normal salary,” he said.

About 10% of Kirkenes residents are now from the Kola Peninsula.

Kirkenes’ Samovar theater company performs in both Norway and Russia, and has Russian and Norwegians employees. Russian choreographer Nikolai Shchetnev feels at home and is thinking of applying for dual nationality.

“Kirkenes is a Russian town in Norway,” said Rune Rafaelsen, the mayor of Soer-Varanger municipality which includes Kirkenes.

He said he would not welcome more tanks on the border though he saw Norway’s NATO membership as “a guarantee that I can do my job.”

Russia denies responsibility for the rise in tensions. It blames the recent basing of U.S. Marines in Norway, which it sees as a security challenge.

But Norway’s worries grew after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then staged Arctic military exercises including maritime maneuvers with ballistic missile-capable vessels present.

“These were clear messages from Moscow,” said Lieutenant-General Rune Jakobsen, Commander of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters — the Norwegian Armed Forces operational command center. “Do not be part of (NATO’s) ballistic-missile defense.”

Despite the tensions, he says Russian forces are behaving less aggressively on the frontier with Norway than in some other border zones between Russia and NATO, such as the Baltic Sea.

In efforts to build trust, Jakobsen has in recent weeks had talks with the regional head of Russia’s FSB security service in the Kola Peninsula, and met the new head of the Northern Fleet, Alexander Moiseyev, in Kirkenes.

“As a small nation neighboring a superpower, you have to strike the right balance between deterrence and reassurance,” Jakobsen said.

But the military exercises are also important for Norway.

“Working together is what makes it possible to fight together, if we have to,” said Brigadier Lars Lervik, commander of the Northern Brigade based in Setermoen.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Syrian army, Turkish force clash near border: state media

Syrian army, Turkish force clash near border: state media
By Nevzat Devranoglu and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

ANKARA/AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian army troops clashed with Turkish forces near the border town of Ras al Ain on Wednesday, Syrian state media reported, as Ankara said it reserved the right to launch another cross-border offensive against Kurdish YPG militia.

The state media gave no details but Turkish-backed rebels said similar, intermittent clashes had occurred in recent days with Syrian troops south of the town, which Turkey seized from Syrian Kurdish-led forces earlier this month.

The report underscores the risk that violence in northeast Syria could rekindle after Ankara and Moscow struck a deal a week ago in which Russia agreed to move the YPG at least 30 km (18.64 miles) south of the border by late on Tuesday.

As part of the deal, Syrian troops have with the agreement of Kurdish forces headed north to take up positions in a region Damascus has not controlled since early on in the country’s eight-and-a-half-year-old war.

In Ankara, President Tayyip Erdogan told lawmakers from his AK Party that Turkey has information the YPG has not completed its pull-out, despite assurances from Russia that they had left ahead of the deal’s deadline.

“Even though the information in our hands suggests this has not been succeeded in a full sense, we will give our response to them after our field assessments,” he said, adding Turkey reserved the right to return to military operations against the YPG in the area.

Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist organization because of its links to Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey, and aims establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria cleared of the YPG.

The YPG is the main component in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that fought for years alongside U.S. forces to shatter the declared “caliphate” of Islamic State militants that spanned a swathe of northern and eastern Syria.

Turkish-backed forces crossed the border into northeast Syria on Oct. 9 to attack the YPG after President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces there a few days earlier, drawing international condemnation of Ankara.

Trump’s decision has been condemned in Washington by Democrats and his fellow Republicans alike for abandoning Kurdish fighters who helped rout Islamic State.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted decisively to sanction Turkey, a NATO ally.

Joint Russian-Turkish patrols had been set to begin on Tuesday at a depth of 10 km (6.2 miles) inside northern Syria, but Erdogan said they would begin on Friday and at a depth of just 7 km (4.3 miles).

“If we see that the members of the terrorist organization have not been moved out of the 30 km, or if attacks continue, no matter from where, we reserve our right to carry out our own operation,” Erdogan said.

On Tuesday, the Turkey-backed Syrian rebels said they had captured an undisclosed number of Syrian army soldiers near Tel Hawa, in the countryside around Ras al Ain. A spokesman for the rebels said that the YPG had not fully withdrawn from the border area and that a new round of clashes were expected.

Some 300,000 people have been displaced by Turkey’s offensive and 120 civilians have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor.

The U.S. House voted 403-16 for a resolution calling on Trump to impose sanctions and other restrictions on Turkey and Turkish officials over its offensive in Syria.

In Geneva, Assad’s government condemned what it called the occupation of its land while the Syrian opposition demanded justice at the opening of a U.N.-backed panel meant to usher in reconciliation, political reforms and free and fair elections as a basis for a lasting peace.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Turkey says Kurdish YPG has not fully withdrawn from Syria border area

Turkey says Kurdish YPG has not fully withdrawn from Syria border area
By Ece Toksabay and Jonathan Spicer

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Kurdish YPG forces have not fully withdrawn from a strip of northeastern Syria under a Russia-brokered accord that is about to expire, Turkey’s foreign minister said on Monday, as Ankara prepared to discuss its next steps with Moscow.

Turkey began a military offensive in northeastern Syria  targeting the YPG forces on Oct. 9 after President Donald Trump pulled U.S. troops out of the area, setting off a regional power shift that analysts say benefits Moscow and Damascus.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said a Russian delegation was headed to Turkey to discuss joint patrols that could begin as soon as Tuesday.

If the YPG does not fulfill the agreement to pull back more than 30 km (18 miles) from Turkey’s border, Turkish-led forces will “clear these terrorists from here”, he said.

“There are those who have withdrawn. (Syrian) regime elements are confirming this, Russia is confirming this as well. But it is not possible to say all of them have withdrawn,” Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara.

Ankara views the YPG as terrorists because of their links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey. But the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which include the YPG, have been a important ally of the United States in the fight against Islamic State militants.

On Sunday, the SDF said it had agreed to withdraw from the 30-km border region it had controlled until the U.S. troops pulled out. Russia has moved military personnel and vehicles into the region and has said the peace plan is on track.

Under the deal agreed on Oct. 22 between Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Syrian border guards and Russian military police are supposed to clear the region of YPG fighters over a six-day period that ends late on Tuesday.

Turkish and Russian forces are then meant to start patrolling a section of the Turkish-Syrian border that runs 10 km deep into Syria.

The deal means President Bashar al-Assad’s forces moving back to parts of the northern border with Turkey for the first time in years due to the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011. (For an interactive map see: https://tmsnrt.rs/2M5FcGH)

“Now, a Russian military delegation is coming (to Turkey),” Cavusoglu said. “Our friends will discuss both the latest situation on the issue of withdrawal and at the end of 150 hours (on Tuesday)… how will the patrols be, what we will do together, what steps we will take.”

RUSSIA ‘GATE KEEPER’

The joint patrols are to run from the Euphrates River east to the Iraq border, except for the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishli, covering a portion of the so-called “safe zone” Turkey originally said it would oversee.

With Ankara and Damascus locked in conflict in Syria’s rebel-controlled Idlib region in the northwest, there could be further risks as Syrian government forces and border guards head to the northeast under the Russia-brokered deal.

On Sunday, Syrian state news agency SANA reported clashes between the Syrian army and Turkish forces near Ras al-Ain, a town on the Turkish border. Turkey has not confirmed those clashes.

“Much of the deal is about coordination but Turkey and Syria are still fighting it out in Idlib, so it’s another potential risk to manage,” said Asli Aydintasbas, an Istanbul-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Turkey has access to northern Syria but Russia has limited (Turkish) penetration under the deal,” she added. “So Putin is the gatekeeper and sole decision-maker there, and is also in a position to dictate Syria’s pending constitutional process.”

A committee tasked with mapping out Syria’s postwar political arrangements is scheduled to hold its first meeting in Geneva on Wednesday.

Cavusoglu will meet his Russian and Iranian counterparts in the Swiss city on Tuesday ahead of that meeting, the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen,

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones)