Turkey, Russia strike deal to remove Kurds from north-east Syria

Updated October 23, 2019

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SOCHI: Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their joint news conference on Tuesday. — Reuters
SOCHI: Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their joint news conference on Tuesday. — Reuters

SOCHI: Turkey and Russia agreed on Tuesday to remove the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia to beyond 30 km from the Turkish border, after which their troops will jointly patrol a narrower strip of land in a “safe zone” that Ankara has long sought in northern Syria.

Beginning at noon (0900 GMT) on Wednesday, Russian military police and Syrian border guards will move in to facilitate the removal of YPG members and weapons to beyond the zone in a mission that should take about six days, according to the deal.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hailed the deal as one that would end the bloodshed in the region, while Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey had no designs on Syrian territory as it continued to push the YPG south.

The YPG, the key component in the Syrian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF) that have for years fought alongside US troops against Isla­mic State, will also leave the towns of Tel Rifaat and Manbij under the deal struck between Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

“The main aim of the operation is to take out PKK/YPG terror organisations from the area and to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees,” Erdogan told a joint news conference with Putin.

Ankara regards the YPG as terrorists because of their ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey.

“This operation also guarantees Syria’s territorial integrity and political unity ... We never had any interest in Syria’s land and sovereignty,” Erdogan added.

Once the YPG are removed, Turkish and Russian troops will conduct joint patrols in northern Syria within 10 km of the border, according to the deal.

Erdogan added that Ankara would also work with Moscow for the safe return of Syrian refugees now in Turkey.

Assad vows support for Kurds

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday said the regime would support Kurdish fighters in the northeast of the war-torn country against Turk­ish soldiers and their Syrian proxies.

“We are prepared to support any group carrying out popular resistance against the Turkish aggression,” he said in a video shared by the presidency.

“This is not a political decision ... We are not taking any political decisions now,” he told government troops on the frontline in the province of Idlib.

“It is a constitutional duty and a national duty,” he said.

Turkey and its Syrian proxies on Oct 9 launched a cross-border attack against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria after an announced US military pullout.

Turkey wants to set up a buffer zone in Syrian soil along the length of its southern frontier to keep Kurdish forces it views as “terrorists” at bay.

Under a US-brokered truce deal announced last week, the Kurds have until late Tuesday to pull out their fighters from a 120-kilometre long strip along the frontier that it has largely overrun during the operation.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been a key ally of the United States in the battle against Islamic State group in Syria, at the cost of 11,000 fighters.

The US pullout has largely been seen as a betrayal of Syria’s Kurds, who have spent most of the country’s civil war working towards autonomy.

Damascus has previously accused Kurds of treason over their alliance with Washington.

The Turkish attack forced the Kurds to seek aid from the regime and make a deal to deploy Assad’s forces in some northeastern areas for the first time in years.

The regime has since deployed in the border town of Kobane as well as the town of Manbij further south, without clashing with Turkish forces.

Assad has repeatedly said he would eventually restore government control over all parts of Syria, driving out rebels and jihadists.

Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2019