Russia's military will train Kurdish forces in Syria, the militia's spokesman said Monday, in Moscow's first agreement of its kind with the group that controls large parts of the country's north.
The move by Russia, a longtime ally of President Bashar al-Assad's government, is likely to anger Turkey, which considers the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) to be a “terrorist” group.
“An agreement was signed between our units and Russian forces operating in Syria that will train us in modern military tactics,” YPG spokesman Redur Xelil said.
“This is the first agreement of its kind, although we have had previous cooperation (with the Russians) in Aleppo city,” he said.
Russian forces were already present at the training camp in the Afrin region, one of the three “autonomous” cantons that Kurdish authorities manage in northern Syria, Xelil told AFP.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said Monday that nearly 100 Russian soldiers have entered the Afrin area.
The deal, which Xelil said was part “of the framework of the fight against terrorism”, was signed on Sunday and came into force on Monday.
Russia has not officially confirmed the announcement of the accord, but confirmed in a statement that it has a presence in Afrin.
The YPG makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters that has seized swathes of territory from the militant Islamic State group (IS) in the north of the country.
The SDF receives equipment, weapons and air support from the US-led coalition, and it is backed by several hundred Western special operations forces in an advisory role.
Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said the Kurds to be trained by the Russians “are not the people we have worked with before”.
He said the Kurds comprised “a lot of different people”.
“Some are working with us through the Syrian Democratic Forces to fight ISIS (IS), some are not. We are supporting the ones who are working with us to fight ISIS.”
Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the US-based Atlantic Council, said Russia was now partnering with the Kurds as they had become an important player in Syria.
“The Kurds are now the most consequential non-state actor in Syria, alongside Al-Qaeda... They will have a huge say over the future of Syria,” he said.