Deal to remove YPG from border reached

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Syrian and Russian forces will deploy in north-east Syria to remove Kurdish YPG fighters and weapons from the Turkish border under a deal which Moscow and Ankara hailed as a triumph.

Hours after the deal was announced, the Turkish defence ministry said the US told Turkey withdrawal of Kurdish militants was complete from the “safe zone” Ankara demands in northern Syria.

There was no need to initiate another operation outside the current area of operation at this stage, the ministry said in a statement, effectively ending its military offensive that began on October 9, drawing widespread criticism.

The agreement follows a US-brokered truce which expired on Tuesday and underlined changes in Syria since US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops two weeks ago ahead of Turkey’s cross-border offensive against the Kurds.

The Russia-Turkey agreement struck in Sochi endorses the return of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to the border alongside Russian troops, replacing Americans who patrolled the region for years with former Kurdish allies.

Under the pact between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Russian military police and Syrian border guards would start moving the YPG 30 km from the Turkish border.

Six days later, Russian and Turkish forces will jointly start to patrol a narrow, 10 km strip of land in the “safe zone” Ankara long wanted in north-east Syria.

US Vice President Mike Pence voiced support for establishment of the safe zone.

“We may well give the international community an opportunity to establish a safe zone between Turkey and the Kurdish population in Syria to ensure peace and security,” Pence told a Heritage Foundation gala in Washington.

Earlier Jim Jeffrey, the senior US diplomat on Syria, dismissed the Sochi deal and questioned whether the Russians could get the YPG to leave.

“It’s full of holes,” he told a congressional hearing. “All I know it will stop the Turks moving forward. Whether the Russians will live up to their commitment, which is vague, to get the YPG out, I don’t know.”

PUTIN CALLS DEAL ‘MOMENTOUS’

After six hours of talks with Erdogan in Sochi, Putin expressed satisfaction at decisions he described as “important, if not momentous, to resolve a pretty tense situation on the Syrian-Turkish border”.

A senior Turkish official described it as an “excellent” deal which would achieve Turkey’s long-held goal of a border strip cleared of the YPG, which Ankara regards as a terrorist organisation because of links to insurgents in Turkey.

Last week’s US-brokered deal was limited to the central part of the border between the Syrian towns Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain, where Turkish forces focused the military offensive.

Under the deal with Moscow, the length of border which the YPG would be required to pull back from is more than triple the size of the territory covered by the US-Turkish accord. It covers most of the area Turkey wanted included.

“The outcome of the Putin-Erdogan meeting in Sochi indicates Erdogan has become a master of leveraging the US and Russia against each other to maximize Ankara’s gains,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish programme at the Washington Institute said in a tweet.

“Turkey got the safe zone it wanted.”

Some 300 000 people were displaced by Turkey’s offensive and 120 civilians died, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor. It said 259 fighters with the Kurdish-led forces were killed and 196 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels. Turkey says 765 terrorists but no civilians died in its offensive.

Pence received a letter from Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander Mazloum Kobani saying their forces withdrew “from the relevant area of operations” under the deal, Pence spokeswoman Katie Waldman said.

Before flying to Russia Erdogan said hundreds of Kurdish fighters remained near Syria’s north-east border despite the truce demanding withdrawal. Earlier he said fighting might resume if Washington promises were not kept.

The US withdrawal from northern Syria was criticised by US lawmakers, including Trump’s fellow Republicans, as a betrayal of Kurdish allies who helped the US fight Islamic State in Syria.

Turkey sought a “safe zone” along 440 km of border with north-east Syria, but its assault focused on border towns Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad in that strip.

Syrian and Russian forces entered border cities Manbij and Kobani, in Turkey’s planned “safe zone” but west of military operations.

Erdogan could accept the presence of Syrian troops in those areas, as long as the YPG are pushed out.

Russia is an ally of Assad. Turkey backed rebels seeking to oust Assad during Syria’s eight-year-long civil war but dropped once frequent calls for him to quit.