Russia says Kurdish fighters have left Syrian border area as deadline expires

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 We will establish, through joint patrols, whether or not the terrorists have actually withdrawn,” said Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director.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)

Russia warns Syrian Kurdish YPG to pull back as its forces move in

Russia warns Syrian Kurdish YPG to pull back as its forces move in
By Andrew Osborn and Ece Toksabay

MOSCOW/ANKARA (Reuters) – Russian military police arrived in the strategic Syrian city of Kobani on Wednesday as Moscow warned Kurdish YPG forces that they face further armed conflict with Turkey if they fail to withdraw from Syria’s entire northeastern border.

Russia’s warning came a day after it struck an accord with Turkey calling for the complete pullout of the YPG fighters, which were once U.S. allies but which Ankara calls terrorists.

The police arrival in Kobani marked the start of a period when Russian and Syrian security forces will oversee the removal of YPG fighters at least 30 km (19 miles) into Syria, under the deal struck by presidents Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan.

A complete pullout of the YPG would mark a victory for Erdogan, who launched a cross-border offensive on Oct. 9 to drive the Syrian Kurdish militia from the border and create a “safe zone” for the return of Syrian refugees.

Russia’s Defence Ministry, quoted by TASS news agency, said the police would help facilitate the YPG withdrawal from Kobani, a border city to the west of Turkey’s military operations. It was vacated by U.S. troops after President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision this month to pull out.

Kobani is of special significance to the Kurdish fighters, who fought off Islamic State militants trying to seize the city in 2014-15 in one of the fiercest battles of Syria’s civil war.

Tuesday’s accord, which expands on a U.S.-brokered ceasefire deal last week, underlines Putin’s dominant influence in Syria and seals the return of his ally President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to the northeast for the first time in years.

Under the deal, Syrian border guards were to deploy there from noon (0900 GMT) on Wednesday.

Six days later, Russian and Turkish forces will jointly start to patrol a 10 km strip of land in northeast Syria where U.S. troops had long been deployed along with their former Kurdish allies.

Those changes reflect the dizzying pace of changes in Syria since Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal on Oct. 6, shaking up the military balance across a quarter of the country after more than eight years of conflict.

Kurdish militia commanders have yet to respond to the deal reached in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, and it was not immediately clear how their withdrawal could be enforced.

RUSSIAN WARNING

The joint Turkish-Russian statement issued after six hours of talks between Putin and Erdogan said they would establish a “joint monitoring and verification mechanism” to oversee implementation of the agreement.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was more blunt. If Kurdish forces did not retreat, Syrian border guards and Russian military police would have to fall back. “And remaining Kurdish formations would then fall under the weight of the Turkish army,” he said.

In a swipe at Washington, which has called into question how the deal will be guaranteed, Peskov said: “Now they (the Americans) prefer to leave the Kurds at the border and almost force them to fight the Turks.”

The Kurdish-led SDF were Washington’s main allies in the fight to dismantle Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria. Trump’s decision to pull troops out was criticized by U.S. lawmakers, including fellow Republicans, as a betrayal.

Trump said the ceasefire agreed between Turkey and the United States last week had held, hailing what he called a big success. “Kurds are safe and have worked very nicely with us,” Trump tweeted, adding he would say more later on Wednesday.

In a further sign of growing ties between Ankara and Moscow, which have alarmed Washington, the head of Russia’s defense sales agency was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying Moscow could deliver more S-400 missile defense systems to Turkey.

Turkey, a NATO member, has already been frozen out of a programmer’s to buy and help produce F-35 jets and faces possible U.S. sanctions for buying the S-400 systems, which Washington says are incompatible with NATO’s defenses and threaten the F-35 if operated near the stealth fighter.

Overnight, Turkey’s defense ministry said the United States had told Ankara the YPG had completed its withdrawal from the area of Turkey’s military offensive.

There was no need to initiate another operation outside the current area of operation at this stage, the ministry said, effectively ending a military offensive that began two weeks ago and drew global criticism.

Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, called on Wednesday for an inquiry into whether war crimes were committed during the offensive.

Further criticism of Turkey’s offensive came from European Parliament members who called in a draft resolution for “appropriate and targeted economic measures” against Ankara.

TURKEY REVIEWS MILITARY PLANS

While Tuesday’s deal addresses Turkey’s call for the YPG to be pushed back from the border, it also means Ankara will have to deepen its security coordination with Damascus after years of hostility between Erdogan and Assad.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that Turkey had no direct contact with Assad’s government, but “there could be contact at the intelligence level, this is natural.”

Three Turkish officials told Reuters this week Ankara was already holding covert contacts with Damascus to avert direct conflict in northeast Syria.

Ankara may also have to moderate its own military ambitions in the region. Turkish security sources said Ankara was re-evaluating a plan to set up 12 observation posts in northeastern Syria in the wake of the deal.

That change reflects the fact that Turkey, which had aimed to be the dominant force in the “safe zone” area, will now have to share that territory with Assad and Putin, who have both said Turkish forces cannot remain in Syria in the long term.

“The most significant part of the Russian-Turkish agreement is the arrival of the Syrian border guard to the northeast, something both Damascus and Russia sought for a long time,” said Yury Barmin, a Middle East specialist at Moscow Policy Group.

“This also means de facto recognition of Assad by Erdogan.”

(Additional reporting by Maxim Rodionov in Moscow and Ezgi Erkoyun, Daren Butler and Jonathan Spicer in Istanbul; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Iran warns Israel against further air strikes in Syria

FILE PHOTO: Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Iran?s Supreme National Security Council Director, speaks to the media after his arrival at Damascus airport, September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri/File Photo

LONDON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Iran warned Israel on Tuesday of a “firm and appropriate” response if it continued attacking targets in Syria, where Tehran has backed President Bashar al-Assad and his forces in their nearly eight-year war against rebels and militants.

Without responding directly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nevertheless said it was important to block Iranian influence in Syria.

Israel, which views Tehran as its biggest security threat, has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets and those of allied militia in Syria. With an election looming in April, Israel has been increasingly open about carrying out air strikes.

In a meeting with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Tehran, the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said the Israeli attacks violated Syria’s territorial integrity and were unacceptable.

“If these actions continue, we will activate some calculated measures as a deterrent and as a firm and appropriate response to teach a lesson to the criminal and lying rulers of Israel,” Shamkhani was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.

In Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he would hold talks in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 21, focussing on Iran’s threat along the Syrian border.

Moscow is a main backer of the Damascus government.

“It’s very important that we continue to prevent Iran from entrenching in Syria. In many ways we blocked that advance. But we are committed to continuously blocking it, continuously preventing Iran from creating another war front against us right here opposite the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu said.

In January, Israeli warplanes carried out a strike on what they called an Iranian arms cache in Syria, and Netanyahu has said attacks will continue.

Syria’s Moualem was quoted on Tuesday by a Hezbollah-run media unit as saying: “The Syrian government considers it to be its duty to keep Iranian security forces in Syrian territory.”

Iran has also repeatedly said it will keep forces there.

Moualem was in Tehran for negotiations before the meeting of the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort town Sochi on Feb. 14 about the situation in Syria.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Cawthorne)

Netanyahu visits Golan Heights, near Syrian border, and cautions Israel’s enemies

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during an event marking the International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the breakthrough the Nazi Siege of Leningrad in the World War II, at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow, Russia January 29, 2018.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a rare visit to the occupied Golan Heights on Tuesday, peering across the nearby border into Syria and warning Israel’s enemies not to “test” its resolve.

Netanyahu was accompanied to a hilltop observation point, some three kilometers (two miles) from a 1974 ceasefire line, by his security cabinet. He has been cautioning against any attempt by Iran to deepen its military foothold in Syria or construct missile factories in neighboring Lebanon.

“We seek peace but are prepared for any scenario and I wouldn’t suggest to anyone that they test us,” Netanyahu said in broadcast remarks.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller)