BEIRUT: At least six Syrian regime fighters were killed as heavy clashes broke out on Tuesday between the army and Turkish forces for the first time since Ankara attacked northeastern Syria three weeks ago, a war monitor said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said artillery and machine-gun fire was exchanged near Assadiya, south of the border town of Ras al-Ain.

“Heavy fighting erupted for the first time between the Syrian and Turkish armies,” the Britain-based monitoring group said.

The Turkish military and its Syrian proxies attacked Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria on October 9 with the aim of creating a roughly 30-kilometre (20-mile) deep buffer zone.

“Turkish artillery fire killed five regime forces in battles on the edge of the village of Assadiya,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Observatory, said.

He added that the pro-Ankara fighters being used by Turkey as the main ground force for the invasion executed a government soldier they had captured.

Kurdish forces earlier this month agreed to withdraw from a 120-kilometre (75 mile) long, Arab-majority segment of the 440-kilometre (275-mile) border zone, although clashes have been reported since.

Turkey subsequently reached a deal with the Syrian government’s main backer Russia for Kurdish forces to pull back from the entire border area.

Left in the lurch by a US troop withdrawal from the border area, Kurdish forces turned to the government for protection.

Damascus forces rushed north and are now expected to deploy along much of the border zone but a 10-kilometre-deep strip was to be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish troops, starting from Tuesday.

Kurdish withdrawal completed

Russia has informed Turkey that Kurdish fighters in Syria have completed their withdrawal from areas near the border, in accordance with a deal agreed between Ankara and Moscow, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday.

“Russia informed our competent authorities of the terror groups’ complete withdrawal from there,” Erdogan said in a televised speech in Ankara marking Turkey’s Republic Day.

Under the agreement reached last week in the Black Sea resort of Sochi between Turkey and Russia, a 150-hour deadline was given for Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters and their weapons to be withdrawn from a zone extending 30 kilometres (18 miles) back from the Turkish border.

That deadline expired on Tuesday.

Russia earlier said that Kurdish forces in northern Syria had withdrawn as planned.

“The withdrawal of armed units from territory where a security corridor should be created has been completed ahead of time,” Russian news agencies quoted Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying on a visit to Armenia.

Under the Sochi deal, Turkish and Russian joint patrols are meant to start after the 150-hour deadline expired.

No date was given for the start of joint patrols but Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said they would begin “soon”, according to the private NTV broadcaster.

The patrols are to be in two zones stretching 10 kilometres to the east and west of Turkey’s current Operation Peace Spring against Kurdish forces in Syria.

Erdogan said Turkey’s consultations with Russia would continue on Wednesday.

“We are not there (in Syria) to stay. We have only one goal: we are there to clear terror groups,” he said.

Ankara says the YPG is a terror group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has waged a bloody campaign against the Turkish state since 1984.

The Turkish military, together with its proxies in Syria, launched an operation on October 9 to clear YPG forces from areas near its border and create a safe zone to repatriate some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2019